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Cork Independent


‘We need to build communities, not simply housing estates’

Wednesday, 10th October, 2018 4:06pm

By Emma Lane-Spollen

Our city is on the cusp of something big.

Cork city is set to grow rapidly, with the population forecast to more than double by 2050. There is huge pressure to create housing now. Yet what we need to focus on is creating sustainable communities and a vibrant city for all its people.

How do we avoid building the ghettos of the future? How do we build sustainable communities and a vibrant city to meet the needs of today’s population as well as tomorrow’s?

A key question that we need to address nationally is how we can accommodate growth and housing affordability in cities in ways that also boost community and social wellbeing.

We know that the cities that thrive are the ones built of natural, mixed communities. These are a mix of ages, incomes and tenures, and in that lies their strength, resilience and sustainability. We know this.


Challenging the wisdom of what we know is the right thing to do, is the real and immediate pressure to address the shortage of homes. Where this has been done in haste, the consequences are plain to see – and they are both immediate and long-lasting. Cheap houses on marginal land. Large estates without any services. Soulless high rises.

The private sector can supply ‘housing units’ if appropriately incentivised. But how do we incentivise the building of communities? This goes beyond bricks and mortar and the traditional role of a for-profit developer.

We must not sit on our hands only to look back in years to come, wondering how planning and development mistakes were made, when we knew better.

The Happy Cities project in Canada, which Cork City Council has looked to learn from, provides good insights that we should take on board.

Firstly, certain kinds of density are better than others. Social trust and support is higher in buildings where no more than eight-twelve households share a main entrance or a common space.

Crucially, (new Land Development Agency, please note) residents who are involved in project design and site management processes are more likely to develop a sense of belonging and contribute to their community.

Finally, the obvious one: the longer people live in their neighbourhood, the deeper their local connections. But housing unaffordability and instability force people to move.

‘Property development’ focuses on the bottom line; a financial investment ignoring, to our detriment, that building homes within communities is a far-reaching social investment that keeps giving a return: in higher levels of health and wellbeing, better educational outcomes, less crime and less welfare dependency.

It is particularly important, when we are in a housing crisis, that we confront the belief that housing is a financial investment, and upend it. The new Land Development Agency aims “to ensure that 30 per cent of all houses built are affordable”. Surely all houses should be affordable (and stay affordable), especially if built with Government subsidy?

Let’s hope this new agency listens to the people of Cork and does not simply build houses in Tivoli Docks, Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Cork Marina, Campfield and Marina Park etc.

Good design does not have to add cost or slow things down; it could actually speed things up, but it begs all of us to want to do things differently.

We need to build communities, not simply housing estates. We need socially forward-thinking developers, architects, councillors and public. We need residents involved in designing and planning their communities.

We need the electorate to demand a liveable city, a safe city, a green city. A city where all people can afford to live; where people can grow old within their community, and where young people can live near their family. This should not be an aspiration. It should be the norm.

It requires us all to care enough to make it happen. Ask yourself, ‘What kind of city do I want for my children?’ And if you are a councillor or a developer or a builder, this is your legacy. Make sure you are proud of it and it withstands the test of time.

The Tomar Trust has supported Cork City Council and other local and state partners to set up the Cork Evolves initiative to explore the challenges and opportunities for Cork in building to meet the forecast growth. This initiative has looked at design, planning and creative perspectives on the challenges of building communities and liveable cities. Its purpose has been to start a conversation in Cork.

Fascinating speakers have presented, from architect Tom O’Donnell, an expert in designing co-housing, to Hugh Brennan of O’Cualann Co-Housing Alliance, a non-profit builder of affordable homes, and Sarah Drummond, CEO of Snook, whose mission is to design a public realm that works better for people.

These are exciting conversations that the city is having. But the truth is it’s very hard to sell the future when people just want a roof over their heads.

We too agree that housing needs to be provided quickly - but not at any cost. We don’t want to lay the foundations of future ghettos.

Cork stands at a crossroads. The choices we make today, the compromises and the shortcuts, will have far-reaching consequences for generations to come.

But the potential rewards of getting this right – by laying down some fundamentals in terms of design, planning and process – would be truly enormous for the future of Cork.

Cork people have always been leaders, not followers. Now is our time to lead nationally.

Let’s grasp this opportunity and build a city where all its people can thrive.

Ensure your voice informs the future of the city: encourage the City Council to be ‘brave and innovative’ and put the wellbeing of its citizens at the heart of planning and design.

The final public meeting for Cork Evolves takes place on 16 October at 6pm in St Peter’s Visitor Centre, North Main Street, Cork. All are welcome.

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