As the new year begins it’s time to reflect on two major recent planning decisions in Galway that have the potential for long-term adverse impacts on the sustainable development of the city and its hinterlands. Although separate schemes both are very much interconnected to a wider vision of how, and in what way, Galway should grow and develop for the betterment of people who live, work and travel into and out of the city. The first of these is located within the city centre, the other is set to traverse the city but allow the expansion of the city in an unplanned ad-hoc manner.
The €104 million Bonham Quay scheme has recently been given approval by An Bord Pleanála. The development has an adjacent separate €25 million accommodation scheme for 345 student resident units, which has also received planning permission. The Bonham Quay development was granted permission by An Bord Pleanála after the developers successfully argued that the student accommodation fulfilled the residential component of their application. In October 2018 the Cabinet approved the €600 million proposal for a bypass project in Galway City. The proposed 18km route runs from the east side of the city to a location close to the village of Barna and will mean about 40 properties along the preferred corridor will be subject to compulsory purchase orders and demolished to accommodate the road. Advocates for this new road argue the scheme will reduce traffic congestion and improve journey times in and around Galway.
It is envisaged that the construction of the seven-story building at Bonham Quay will employ some 500 people construction workers and on completion, the site will accommodate some 2,600 office workers. But how many of these will live adjacent to their workplace? And yet, it was argued that this particular development will have minimal impacts on traffic in and around the city centre. The conflicting signals given with regard to automobility in the city are stark. Part solution to Galway’s sporadic but chronic traffic congestion is to reduce or eliminate the use of private cars from the city centre. Yet, at the same time and with one single development, several thousand workers will seek to travel directly to the city centre without any alternative sustainable ways of doing so other than driving a private car. No reasonable attempt has been made to provide additional living accommodation for these workers close to their work who, based on evidence from previous CSO figures, will largely come from outside the city; and there are little or no attempts to provide and promote active or sustainable modes of transport such as cycling or public transport for these workers. But a number of enlightened solutions to tackling traffic gridlock and regenerating the city already have been fleshed out and are available in the progressive Galway City Development Plan document, which seeks to span from 2017-2023.
The need for diversity and mix-use development is incredibly important for city (re)development and regeneration. This was first suggested by Jane Jacobs in the early 1960s and still retains its potency and relevance today. To truly understand cities we need to acknowledge and embrace the notion that combinations and mixtures of use and residential diversity are essential components to improved urban liveability and quality of life. Moreover, the contemporary trend in the US, for example, is for large employers and corporations, particularly in the tech industry, to relocate to city centres when local environments merit such moves.
The Housing Strategy seeks to ensure that a mixture of house types and sizes is provided to satisfy the requirements of various categories of households, including the special requirements of elderly persons and persons with disabilities and to counteract undue segregation in housing between persons of different social backgrounds.(Galway City Development Plan, page 24)
This provides us with a tremendous opportunity for the proper development of the Galway dockland brownfield sites (the Ceannt Station site is the next major development to be decided upon in this particular locality). But the best and brightest talents that major companies and corporations must attract and retain are no longer interested in suburban living, with its associated long daily commute. They want to live close to their work and enjoy the vibrancy of city community living, with its rich and varied quality of life. These workers are not seeking unaffordable housing with long commutes to a job where they work in isolation. They prefer the accessibility, infrastructure and cultural vibrancy that cities provide and where innovation thrives.
New residential development in particular has contributed to the vibrancy of the city centre. The Council will continue to encourage residential development by requiring a residential content of at least 20% of new development in the city centre. Exceptions may be made on small scale redevelopment sites. On certain key sites in the city centre namely the Ceannt Station lands, Inner Harbour and the Headford Road LAP areas, a higher residential content of 30% will be required.(Galway City Development Plan, page 36)
The aim of any city (re)development and regeneration plan should be to create attractive and balanced residential neighbourhoods; transforming the prospects of a place depends on creating environments in which people would choose to live in and which provide benefits for existing residents. What point is a city in which no one wants to live? The Galway City Development Plan specifically focuses on this and – although I don’t agree with every facet of the plan -thus is a considered strategy for the future planning and development of Galway in a sustainable manner. But on their first test of credibility city planners, decision-makers and, indeed, An Bord Pleanála have all failed to satisfy conditions they themselves support for the better (re)development and regeneration of the city. Even if you were to argue that student accommodation alone is appropriate as a residential component – it isn’t – do 345 units make up the 30% as set out in the Plan? And what about transport in and out of the city centre? How does the construction of an expensive ring road around the city fit into this particular overall planning approach? On the one hand, we are asking motorists to avoid coming into the city centre, and at the same time planning for approximately 3,000 workers to do just that on a daily basis.
The objective of the strategy is to help address the transportation issues experienced in the city and the environs. It recognises the need to do so in an integrated, sustainable manner that aligns transport investment with settlement patterns, travel movements and also supports a sustainable use of land as promoted in the Core Strategy. This implies an approach that supports opportunities that will reduce congestion and car dependency through increased capacity of reliable public transport and the promotion and facilitation of cycling and walking, which in turn promotes the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.(Galway City Development Plan, page 15)
The City Development Plan clearly outlines the strategy objectives with regard to reducing car dependency in the urban environment but, in the case of the Bonham Quay development and proposed ring road, does not have any plan or approach to dealing with the potentially significant increase in commuting into and out of the city centre. Why make progressive and forward-thinking plans if we don’t even attempt to stick with them? I don’t feel obliged to be a cheerleader for economic development over and above the other pillars of sustainability – the social and environmental – (many of our politicians and decision-makers do that often enough) so I can be forgiven for not joining in with the chorus of approval for the new Bonham Quay development or the proposed ring road as its currently envisaged. Of course, it’s crucial for such large brownfield sites in the city to be redeveloped – I grew up, raised a family, and continue to live in the city centre; who doesn’t want a future for their children close to their family home – but such schemes must be accomplished in a holistic and sustainable manner. Galway City Council commissioned a way forward in this respect with the City Development Plan so why then, at this first opportunity, is this progressive strategy for the (re)development and regeneration of the city cast aside in favour of developer-led planning? And why do we continue to send out conflicting and confusing signals to motorists that we want them to avoid coming into the city centre but would like them to work, but certainly not live, there?