The Quiet Man, an iconic 1952 film, was Hollywood’s first showcasing of the Irish countryside in all its splendor. This Academy Award-winning classic set the standard for big screen adaptations of life in Ireland ever since. To this day Tourism Ireland plays up the green fields, majestic cliffs, old castles, and small quaint villages to be found along the Wild Atlantic Way. Ballad songs about the natural beauty of rural Ireland abound.
Yet the countryside has a problem. Long established communities are in decline with post offices and Garda stations closing. GAA clubs, long a mainstay of country life, are amalgamating and struggling to field teams as traditional catchment areas continue to bleed young players.
Advocates may be tempted to insist on allocating more resources to rural Ireland, such as keeping country post offices and Garda stations open. However this may be neither effective nor affordable. A counter-intuitive but more effective approach to helping the country is to focus on the towns and cities that now supply more business and employment for country-dwellers. Towns and cities are the economic engines for the country.
Since the industrial revolution, people have steadily moved from the country into towns. This was most pronounced in England where the great upheaval began, the rest of the developed world followed, and it is happening now on a massive scale in China and India. Ireland also participated in industrialization, but much of this was confined to the eastern part of the country where cities like Belfast and Dublin grew up as manufacturing centers, with smaller towns in the hinterlands also picking up much of the work.
The world’s population went majority urban in the 1990s. 54 percent now live in urban areas and the figure is expected to rise as the developing world continues to grow. However Ireland has failed to fully embrace the opportunities presented by this trend. Over 50 percent of the republic’s economic activity is concentrated in the greater Dublin area. Better transport links in and out of the city were supposed to help redress the balance, but instead they kicked off a disastrous cycle of induced traffic. This is where people take advantage of new roads and cheaper house prices farther away from work by opting for a longer commute. If one person alone did this then it would not be a problem, but when enough people do the same thing the result is clogged roads and multi-hour commutes.
“Decentralization” under Bertie Ahern’s government was supposed to move civil servants out of the capital, but their destinations were various small villages populated by Fianna Fail supporters who would stand to benefit financially, and the plan was never completed. This conflicted with the National Spatial Strategy that was launched a year before, a plan to coordinate development in cities and larger county towns.
Now the current government has produced another grand plan called “Ireland 2040” which tries again to redress the country’s imbalance. The plan is impressive, prioritizing development of cities outside of Dublin, notably Cork, Limerick and Galway. However these projects are only as good as the willingness of people to buy into them. If people mistakenly think that the town can only prosper at the expense of the country or vice versa, then popular opposition could thwart the plans.
Strong rural communities cannot exist without strong towns, and strong towns cannot exist without strong cities.
So what is a strong city? The answer is longer than an article like this, but a good place to start is with an urbanist philosophy like that which is gaining ground in the United States. This is the idea that the urban core has the potential to pack large numbers of willing people into vibrant, compact, walkable neighborhoods that offer homes, jobs, entertainment, and vital services close enough together than it is feasible to walk, cycle, or take public transport between most of it. It rejects the car-centric single-use zoning and low-density sprawl that disfigured so many American cities in the post-war years, policies that pushed everyday functions so far apart that walking became impossible, public transport became inefficient, and driving became mandatory. Multi-lane highways and office “parks” are out; narrow streets with offices and apartments above cafes and stores are in.
Single-family houses in the suburbs are still there for those who need to raise children, but town and city centers are becoming attractive locations for students, young single professionals, and seniors who may no longer be able to drive.
The best way for the government to boost the prosperity of cities, Dublin or elsewhere, is to empower them. Strong cities need strong city government with greater control over planning, policing, transport, taxation, and even education. To offset these extra powers a directly elected mayor provides an extra layer of democratic control and accountability.
Directly elected mayors are common in the United States and were introduced in certain cities the UK since 2000. The higher profile of this type of mayor puts a human face on what would otherwise be a dry topic and promotes civic engagement and a civic spirit.
In the case of Ireland there is no shortage of political characters who would be suited to such a role, and a powerful layer of regional government would be a more suitable location for them than their current abode in the peanut gallery of the independent–and hence permanent–opposition benches of Dáil Eireann. The days of bringing parish pump demands to a national parliament could finally be over, and a bit of real responsibility would soon weed out the chancers.
The future of the globe is urban, and Ireland is not exempt from this inevitability. Only by embracing the potential of the city can the nation ensure prosperity for future generations, avoid the mistakes made in America and elsewhere, and ultimately safeguard rural communities in the process.