Ed Glaeser, Richard Florida, Terry Clark, and Jane Jacobs (prominent urban theorists) argued that cities are intellectual breeding grounds for new ideas and innovations. They were not alone – it is now a stylised fact in the discipline that cities are significant drivers of economic growth. The city also acts like an ‘entertainment machine’ that attracts creative and diverse people. And, it seems apparent that the human race also thinks there are greater economic opportunities in cities. The past century has seen a large migration of the human race from rural to urban areas. By 2050, Eurostat predicts about 80 per cent of the European population will be living in Urban areas.
But urban areas are not without their problems. Cities have more crime problems and pollution than rural areas. Also, there are many transport problems such as traffic congestion and parking difficulties, long commuting times, poor public transport systems, pollution and noise. So there is a paradox in cities of benefits versus costs. A key aspect of urban analysis is to identify what factors maximise these benefits and minimise the costs.
In this piece I am going to focus on commuting. Eurostat recently rated people in ireland to have high satisfaction with commuting times with only Denmark and Luxembourg achieving better satisfaction ratings. Satisfaction levels were also well above the EU average. However, the least satisfied by commuting times in Ireland were people living in towns and suburbs. Also, these are averages – it is likely that satisfaction levels differ from place to place. Many of the readers of this paper, like myself, live in Carrigaline (11 kms from Cork). As I work in UCC, I leave regularly before 7.30. Usually, my commute would take approx 30 minutes. If I am not on Carr’s hill before this time, I like many others, will be feeling very sorry for myself, as we will be stuck in bumper to bumper traffic for normally at least an hour. Sometimes, I am lucky to be in to UCC before 9. Its probably important to recognise that in the other lane, there is also tailbacks as people are commuting from Cork to Ringaskiddy. Often I go the back roads by Ballea Road, onto Ballygarven, up around the airport and onto Togher. Doing this route, my commute would normally be about 45-50 minutes.
Is my commute time exceptional? How does my story compare to others? Table 1 shows the percentage of people (by settlement town) that have a journey shorter than 30 minutes. In terms of this measure, the Crosshaven-Churchbay residents come off the worst. About half of them have a commute more than 30 minutes. These commutes could be much longer. Also, this table includes school-goers, the majority of which, you would expect are going to school in local areas. Again, imagine you are in a bus on the crosshaven to Cork route. What about people in Carrigaline. 66% of people have a commute less than 30 minutes. Carrigaline has a very young population and so a large number of this proportion would be going to school locally. So again, a large proportion of the Carrigaline residents have a commute longer than 30 minutes.
Car dependency of people living in Carrigaline and Crosshaven is high, with only 3% of residents opting to take the bus on their daily commute. In the 2016 census, Carrigaline was the largest town in Cork and the fourth fastest growing town in the country and Crosshaven was the fastest growing town in County Cork. By the way, the density in Carrigaline is greater than the density of Cork city. Minister Simon Coveney said in September of 2016, that Metropolitan Cork will have a major role to play within the new national planning framework. Historically we have fairly tight greenbelt zone around the city core so Metropolitan Cork translates into the towns around Cork city will have a major role to play. And only this year 800 houses are to be developed in Janeville, Carrigaline. And the past also shows, that the towns are the preferred growth areas. Between 1995 and 2015, on average, 3,778 houses were built per year in the county and the city only accounted for 870 on average per year. So the towns of metropolitan Cork are where the most significant changes will be.
We have to build somewhere – this is an economic fact. This might sound very NIMBY (not in my back yard) of me – but building in towns as opposed to closer around the city boundary makes no economic sense to me at all. In fact, the greenbelt policy around the city (as per the picture) that has dominated planning preferences of planning agencies in the UK and Ireland makes completely no sense to me. Paul Cheshire (prominent urban economist and expert on functional urban regions) highlights the strange paradox identifed that, contrary to popular perception, there is plenty of space to build new houses, and he argued that we need to reform the regulation that is forcing land to be rationed and cities to be strangled by greenbelts. Houses are becoming more unaffordable even though we are getting richer year on year – that is strange. In the 2011 census, urban areas only represented 2.4% of the total land area in Ireland. We are not covering the countryside in concrete. In fact most of urban areas are made up of green spaces we enjoy such as gardens and parks.
The greenbelt idea originated from Ebenezer Howard (founder of the English garden movement) and the idea he envisaged of the greenbelt was an extensive ring of parkland where citizens could walk their dogs. His first publication was in 1902. A lot has changed since then and I do not see a lot of people using Cork’s greenbelt for this. Michael McGrath in a letter dated February 2015, to the Cork Local Government Committee, stated “we currently have a metropolitan greenbelt, surrounding the City and its environs. From a planning perspective, this serves a very useful purpose in having a distinctive City separated from commuter satellite towns (for example Carrigaline, Midleton, Blarney). I do not believe it represents sustainable planning to allow the City extend into this greenbelt especially when parts of the City are undoubtedly in need of regeneration and investment.” This suggests that it is better we build houses in towns that are far from the city (which a lot of us commute to and from) instead of around the greenbelt. Let me make sense of this logic. The logic seems (1) longer commuting distances are better (2) car dependency is good (3) it is more sustainable to build in a green field outside Carrigaline and Crosshaven than it is on a green field in the greenbelt. (4) having Cork people separated from the city of Cork makes it distinctive and (5) building on the greenbelt would mean less investment in regeneration and investment.
The logic is clearly the other way – (1) shorter commuting distances are better and more sustainable; (2) alternative public transport options to the motor car will become more feasible (3) it is more sustainable to build in green fields closer to the city, work and college and have urban sprawl rather than creating suburban sprawl (4) it does not make sense to push city families out of their preferred place to live to metropolitan towns (this happened during the boom with many young Douglas people forced to relocate to Carrigaline due to high house prices and lack of supply) (5) having people live closer to the city will improve the cities chances of regeneration and investment as this will more likely be the ‘place’ people will use for their daily activities and (6) there will be “spillover” multiplier benefits to neighbouring city boroughs (7) houses will be more affordable and finally (8) a more equal society where younger generations will have a greater chance of living where they might like without having to be a millionaire.