The Republic of Ireland's population is now 4.76 million, up 1.13 million from 1996. If we are to support more expansion on that scale, we really need to think about the way in which our current development model treats agricultural land. It is therefore worth looking back at changes of land use in Ireland to see how we got to where we are, so we can be informed when helping to formulate a plan for the future.
Changes in Land Use for Ireland
Agricultural Land as a % of Total Land Area: 81.9 65.0
Arable Land (% of land area): 23.1 16.2
Forestry %: 6.7 10.9
Figures courtesy of the World Bank.
Suburban development arrived here in the 1960s with the construction of suburbs like Tallaght in Dublin and Ballyphehane in Cork. These were seen as a great solution to the problem of inner-city slums. Their occupation of prime agricultural land was bemoaned by the farmers, but this was not taken seriously by planners. They saw Ireland's attachment to agriculture as a symptom of old-fashioned ways, a relic of our past that needed to be modernised. Expansion began to take place around the outskirts of every town and city.
Suburban planning was directly related to the popularisation of the automobile. Cars and trucks were replacing rail and canal traffic as the preferred method of transporting people and goods. This was seen as the future. But our ancient towns and cities were not car-friendly and many of our country roads were windy, bumpy and narrow. The country was in dire need of modernisation. This attitude resulted in very insensitive developments. City centres were re-shaped to allow traffic to flow through them. Numerous streets were demolished to widen roads, while greens were paved to make car parks.
New roads were built to connect towns and cities. The first series of these was undertaken in the 1980s, as national primary roads were widened or re-routed, bend by bend. Soon these roads were full up with traffic and it was found that towns formed bottlenecks. Naas and Newbridge were by-passed and what later became the M50 was started around 1983. Dual carriageways were similarly plagued with traffic problems at off-ramps, mostly around Dublin. Motorways began carving their ribbons of asphalt across the countryside and most of our current motorway network was completed between 2002-2010. New roads make it a lot easier to criss-cross the country, even if most of them just make it easier to go to Dublin. But they encourage car ownership, which results in more traffic jams. Planners are now beginning to look at integrated transport networks in places like the Netherlands, where public transport is so good that cars are unnecessary for most urban dwellers.
Buildings tend to attach themselves to new roads like limpets. This phenomenon is known as ribbon development, where main roads become swamped with car dealerships, filling stations, supermarkets, industrial estates, housing estates, hotels, schools, crèches and other paraphernalia. It has repercussions in terms of road safety and energy efficiency and is generally seen as a blight on the eye. Over the last twenty-five years our national primary road network has expanded to 3,296.72 miles, covering thousands of hectares of land. In the Dublin region some of the country's best land is now under concrete. This land was once used for fruit and vegetable and other mixed farming enterprises to supply the city with fresh food. Demand from developers for these prime real estate plots has decimated the farming communities that once thrived there.
Now you can only identify former villages by their main-streets, where churches, old pubs and cottages often survive, surrounded by a sea of houses and industrial units. Sometimes you can spot an old farmhouse with its thick walls, remnants of barns and stables, its land neatly divided into semi-detached sites with two cars to each house. A few farmers survive in urban areas, but they are plagued with problems, from illegal dumping to bored teenagers causing havoc. I once helped a farmer outside Ballincollig to cross the road with his cattle. It was a dangerous business stopping the traffic on a busy suburban road, and this man only dares to do it twice a year. The herd grazes one side of the road in summer, the other in winter. It's hardly the most efficient way to farm but that's the way it is for him.
Suburban development has been beneficial to some individual landowners, especially those with farms that were re-zoned during the boom. Many farms sold for enormously inflated prices and farmers who took advantage were often able to buy fine big holdings for their trouble. Similarly, the trend of assessing land values in terms of road frontage came about during this time, and it persists today. Surely the old adage, 'hold what you have', was lost during these years. Many strips of road frontage were sold for one-off houses with the result that those left farming had a lot of extra headaches to contend with, especially fencing in stock and keeping out trespassers.
As we progress through the second decade of the new millennium we face challenges from climate change, combined with continued population expansion. Improvements in health care, living conditions and diet mean that people live longer and survive better than ever before. Population density is an issue for planners as they now realise that all of this ribbon-development has to stop, or we will run short of productive land.
It is no surprise that towns and cities sprang up close to the best land. Now their expansion threatens to swamp some of our most productive farming country. The problem is old habits die hard and local developers make their bread and butter from the current model. They will resist any strengthening of the planning laws. Another aspect is that people in Ireland like to have gardens and seem not to embrace high-rise living. While European cities all have large densities of high-rise accommodation Ireland has relatively little. Perhaps this is because a lot of the apartment complexes we built prior to and during the boom were inadequately designed as long-term living spaces. They were never seen as potential homes for families, more as student flats and temporary dwellings for young singles, so they were generally poky and dark. They were designed more to profit the developer (fitting more units into a given space) than for the welfare of their inhabitants.
During its ill-fated coalition with Fianna Fáil, the Green Party introduced rules to improve standards for this type of accommodation, from energy efficiency to the amount of interior space. The boom ground to a halt almost as soon as the new regulations took effect so their impact is hard to gauge. Now the building lobby wants to reverse those measures, saying they are too restrictive. This would be a mistake. In the future, when another million or so is added to our population, we will need to have proper building standards to accommodate people in smaller areas, so that we can protect our remaining farmland from further encroachment, or we might live to regret it.