Every Saturday throughout the early 1960s, a dull drone could be heard over the Colorado plains. The light aircraft flew low, at around 2,000 feet. Inside, the pilot plotted future roads, suburban housing schemes and new business parks.
Ray Kroc was looking for cheap land and was planning a revolution for suburban America even before the suburbs existed. Kroc, the mastermind behind McDonald’s, soon graduated to helicopters and by the 1980s, the company was one of the largest purchasers of commercial satellite photography, using it to predict suburban sprawl from outer space.
The story of the spread of American suburbs makes instructive reading, particularly in light of Ireland’s approach to housing. By refusing to ‘build up’ in our cities and urban areas, we have to ‘build out’ in order to house people.
If this process continues (when we eventually start building again), vast estates will not be serviced by a local town or village, but by clusters of shopping malls, all-night Spars and fast food joints which will be located on proposed motorway intersections.
In the same way as Ray Kroc surveyed the Colorado plains from the sky, Tesco Ireland employs five full-time planners whose job is to buy up sites in new suburbs that are about to be re-zoned so that the Tesco footprint will lead rather than follow development.
Our development model is pure West Coast America. Ireland is more Denver than Denmark.
Apart from the obvious implication for traffic, the suburbanisation of Ireland is likely to presage a fast food revolution. In the US in the 1960s, McDonald’s realised that, as the amount of time spent in the car rose, people would eventually choose to eat as they crawled through the daily commute.
The answer to the hungry commuter problem was simple: on the spot, disposable meals without any need for cutlery. Suburban sprawl, traffic and fast food got it together. Today, an estimated 17 per cent of all American food is eaten at the dashboard. This figure is likely to be replicated in Ireland in the not too distant future.
This will lead to a serious weight problem. According to the national taskforce on obesity, 27 per cent of 11-year-old Irish boys and 29 per cent of 11-year-old Irish girls are overweight and Irish girls aged from five to eight are ballooning much quicker than boys. One in three is overweight. We go from toddlers to waddlers in a shockingly short period. And 11 per cent of Irish seven-year-old girls are obese.
That’s the physical cost, but what about the financial cost of sprawl?
Obviously, the more spread out your population, the higher your public transport costs and the less efficient public transport becomes. In addition, there’s a psychological cost. Suburbanisation leads to more atomised societies where people drive everywhere, mix far less and grow more remote.
In housing, scale is everything, not only because building high density brings down costs, but because it increases the efficiency of all the related public services from schools, to healthcare, creches and transport.
This is why Simon Coveney’s support for higher density, high rise developments in urban areas is welcome and essential. Ireland needs to build more houses, in the right places and at the right prices. This will involve ‘building up’ in Dublin. The most obvious location is the docklands. We need a zone for 40-storey, top-of-the-range apartments where people would like to live. Most societies build new cities every generation or two, why not us?
In order to achieve a comprehensive solution to the housing crisis, the city council needs to change height regulations immediately in, say, three specific locations. The reason for three is to act as an incentive for the next phase of the solution. It’s no good just to change regulations, the state has to force execution.
To proceed to the execution phase, there needs to be a massive change to planning laws where developers or owners who are sitting on zoned land need to be given a ‘use it or lose it’ option. This option should be targeted at urban brown field sites. If owners don’t build up on urban land by a certain date, they should lose the planning permission and the land should revert to industrial use.
In fairness to Dublin City Council, it does aim to make the city more liveable. This explains the recent initiatives of making Dublin more cycling and pedestrian-friendly. But it doesn’t matter how many cycling lanes and pedestrian zones you have. Unless you have somewhere for people to live, then by definition the city can’t be liveable. All the high and mighty sentiments are just rhetoric unless we build accommodation, and lots of it.
Dublin is full of vacant plots, and there are loads of people who want to live in the city, so why are these plots not being built on right now? Why don’t we have a sea of cranes building apartments in the city?
One of the reasons is the unintended consequence of the council trying to do the right thing. After much criticism of “jerry-built” apartments during the boom and horror stories of cowboy builders, the council has designed minimum standards for apartments.
One of these is a ban on north-facing and east-facing units. I am not too sure that many people care if their flat is east-facing; sure, it would be nicer to be west or south-facing, but let people choose. It’s not as if Dublin is blessed with consistent tropical weather which makes those long, lazy, sunny, south-west-facing evenings so essential.
The main problem for supply of this east and north-facing apartment ban is that it renders half the site worthless to a developer. So the developer will only buy the site if it comes down in price. This is one clear impediment to development, and it is a classic example of too little regulation being followed by too much; as if it will in some way compensate for the sins of the past.
Take another new regulation about the minimum size of an apartment. Again, as a result of tiny apartments built in the boom, the council has deemed that the minimum size of a two-bed apartment in Dublin must now be 90 square metres. So the idea was to protect the consumer. But what has happened? Because only half the derelict sites in Dublin can be used due to the north and east-facing ban, this rule has pushed up the cost of building.
The solution is much less regulation, combined with a stipulation to go up. If we don’t do this, we will have a perennial housing crisis in the city.