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General : Columns : Mark Waters Last Updated: 2, Apr 2018 - 10:02

The Land Question still haunts modern Ireland.
By Mark Waters
22, May 2003 - 14:30

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When I was a child in Dublin I lived at the end of a row of terraced houses. There was a driveway and a small garden in front of each house. The gardens weren't walled, so children could play across them for the length of the street. It was a lively sight in summer when the sunshine would bring out all the neighbourhood kids riding their bicycles, playing football or hopscotch, or inventing new games with a skipping rope.

Then one day, a pioneering neighbour decided to build a three-foot wall around his little patch of green.

Within a few months everyone else on the street had followed suit and that was the end of the children's freedom to roam. Now the residents could proudly salute their neighbours from behind their little forts as they mowed their little lawns and pruned their little rose gardens.

It was a vivid reminder of how centuries of struggle for land ownership had left its mark on the subconscious of the nation.

It was also a reminder of the powerful psychological battle that the town planners across the country would face if they attempted to introduce high-density housing and thus deny the right of the smallholders to their parcel of land.

This was at the start of the seventies. The Ballymun experiment of high-rise apartment blocks had already been discredited. Lower density housing of the terraced or semi-detached type --three bedrooms with garden at front and back-- was the new fashion.

But alas, the planners made the same mistake with low-rise as they had with high-rise previously. They failed to build the facilities and amenities that were required to turn a group of dwellings into a community.

A shopping centre, sports facilities, community centres, libraries, pubs, cinemas, a reliable public transport system, a hospital --all are basic requirements in a well functioning community. Yet none were present in the town where I grew up despite it having a population in excess of 100,000.

What's more the failure was heightened by the low-density factor. Everything was so spread out that it was difficult to get anywhere --and difficult to connect with others in the community.

That was a generation ago but the subconscious history of the nation continues to over rule common sense. We continue to choose low-density housing over the more sensible high-density option favoured by our continental cousins.

Even though our standard of living is reduced by costly and time-consuming commuter times --to work, to school, to the sports field or the pub-- we continue to favour semi-detached houses over apartments.

Apartment life works --if done properly. Economies of scale dictate that the closer people are to each other and to the facilities and amenities they use, the more viable and vibrant these facilities and amenities will be. One street of twenty five-storey buildings can contain about 400 3-bedroom apartments. That's enough people to support a small commercial area in itself. Imagine how much space 400 semi-detached houses takes up. And imagine how far it is to walk to the nearest shop --or to the nearest neighbour you get on with-- if you're stuck in the middle of that maze.

Apartment life has not become popular in Ireland outside of the major urban centres. One reason for this is that most apartments are not purpose built. Old houses are partitioned willy-nilly into ever decreasing living spaces that are often ill fit for their purpose. The failure of a major purpose built development at Ballymun also looms large in the nation's subconscious even though its failure had little to do with its high-density characteristics.

But the biggest impediment to apartment life remains the centuries old preoccupation with land ownership. The front and back gardens of the housing estates give some succour to the deep desire to have our own smallholding.

It's time we woke up to the fact that this preoccupation has gone too far. It is dismantling our communities and degrading our quality of life as we move further and further away from each other, content to hide in our gardens behind our 3-foot walls.

About the author

The author has enjoyed purpose-built apartment life in several European countries including Ireland. He currently resides in a shoebox in Rathmines. Amongst his life ambitions he lists the wish 'to be able to one day swing a cat'. Needless to say the cat - which was enthusiastic about the proposition until informed 'it's not that kind of swinging Trixie'- is sceptical about the whole endeavour.  The author remains unbowed in his ambition.

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