Urban economy, stupid

“There is a supply problem, we are not building enough, not building in the right location, and not building the right type of home. And also a demand problem. We Dubliners simply don’t like apartments, and what we are supplying is depressing demand for sustainable urban living.”

The above appeared in the Irish Times on September 7th in an article by Paul Kearns, a former DCC planner and author on urbanism. This was the latest of a few, rather depressing, articles along similar lines. Previously we had the tiresome magical thinking of serial spoofer David McWilliams, suggesting we build over Dublin Port, heroically ignoring the fact that Dublin’s bubble has very little to do with a lack of available sites. Probably as a reaction to this, the discussion has moved on: so alongside the pictures of six children sleeping in a Garda station, and the cries of “Just build the bloody things,” we now have nurdling thinkpieces that decry a lack of housing density and have decided to talk about sustainable urban living. “How we build our cities,” “Making a sustainable urban fabric” and “The trouble is all these people wanting houses with gardens” are subjects du jour for… well, for serious thinkers.

It should go without saying that I’m not unhappy to see urbanism being discussed in the media. Predictably enough, I’m all for it; at a point where we have to build a lot more houses in Ireland’s urban centres, and quickly – not just in Dublin, it should be made clear, although the issue is most acute there – then a high level of awareness about sustainable urban landscapes is a good thing.

However, this is simply the wrong type of conversation. It frequently turned relies on a “we Irish just don’t…” narrative that is elitist, reductive, and all kinds of boring. You would think the lack of sustainable apartments is part of Irish genetic makeup, like blue eyes or freckles or high-functioning alcoholism. Worse, rather than discussing urbanism as a tool for design in the future, there is an implication that a lack of “proper” urbanism – and there really aren’t enough inverted commas you can put around the word “proper” in that context – is directly responsible for the housing crisis.

Let’s not fence around things; this view is bilge. One could say it’s a fine example of confirmation bias, but that doesn’t go far enough. It’s an example of people placing themselves and their own expertise at the centre of a narrative, whether it belongs there or not.

The first of these articles I noticed was by Noel Brady, of DIT School of Architecture and Urban Design, back towards the end of July. It’s by far the most egregious. I found it embarrassing, frankly, and I was horrified to see other architects enthusiastically sharing it. It’s a cobbling-together of outright falsehoods, pet architect grievances, and batshit-crazy ideas that collapse under even a vaguely serious examination. The piece is difficult to sum up – it largely consists of great ox-bow lakes of turgid jargon – but the thrust of it is that pattern-book housing has excluded design professionals and left Irish people obsessed with detached and semi-detached properties, hence Dublin has an extraordinarily low housing density which has lead to the housing crisis and needs to be tackled in generational terms. Oh, and something about AirBnB. In the meantime, we can put houseless families into cruise ships. No, I’m not making that last bit up, and frankly it’s too ludicrous and unpleasant to even debunk. As for the rest…

OK, said the author wearily; chop-chop, timber.

If there is a particularly Irish attachment to one-off housing, it certainly doesn’t stem from pattern-book housing. You have to go back at least to Ireland’s roots as a rural society based on subsistence farming and subdivided land. That probably doesn’t go far enough, however, since “the tyranny of the 3-bed semi” is equally common in the UK; you possibly have to go back to the Roman conquest to trace the reasons. And there are perfectly practical modern-day reasons a family would prioritise houses, such as the flexibility to extend in the future. Blaming pattern-book housing is just taking a favourite architectural bugbear – we all hate Bungalow Bliss – and putting it centre stage, with no regard to reality. Similarly, while architects and urbanists love a good dense city, Dublin’s density is not particularly low* and there’s no real evidence that homelessness rates have anything to do with urban density anyway. Excluding design professionals is a problem, one architects love to complain about, but it affects housing quality without necessarily affect housing volume. Architects and urban designers dislike estate-type housing, not without good reason, but connecting this to a housing crisis is dangerous nonsense. So yes, these are real issues worthy of discussion, but connecting them to a housing shortage is spurious.

Eoin Drea’s article appeared a few days later. Drea is an economist living in an apartment in Brussels, and wrote about poor apartment standards in Dublin and how, um, it should all be more like Brussels. The article is marbled with a highly irritating sense of “look how enlightened I am, I live in an apartment, I know you can’t believe it” – OK, that’s not a direct quote, but it’s pretty close. However it’s a far less obnoxious piece, as Drea talks a lot of sense about the deficiencies of Irish apartments (they’re too small, and getting smaller), and does so in the context of this leading to problems down the line rather than being a root cause of the current malaise. He also partially discusses the issue as being economic, with a supply model “built on sand” and any developer currently incentivised to – at best – drip-feed supply. So it’s a shame that he reiterates the usual nonsense about how Irish people are obsessed with home ownership, and have an inbuilt scorn for apartments in favour of houses.  Worse, having repeatedly contrasted Ireland with European states, Drea offers no insight at all how Ireland might move from one model to the other. The implication is that nice apartments are something a city can just airily choose to have. In a sense this is true, but all development is a product of a very particular economic ecosystem, and it takes a huge effort to change things. None of this is to say that we can’t change this, or that we shouldn’t try – just that the conversation is a huge economic one, not a blithe one-liner that “we should build nice apartments.” We don’t have nice city-centre apartments because developers can’t build them and make a profit, apart from luxury models in the €500k bracket. While we rely on private developers, our housing provision will remain subject to the rules of profit – and housing requires such high initial investments that no sane developer would risk a new model of housing, the potential losses are catastrophic. The sluggishness of apartment building is not about urbanism or how “we just don’t like apartments,” it’s accountancy.

This means the truisms in Kearns’ article, which opens with the contention that it’s not a housing crisis, it’s an apartment crisis, just produce a feeling of tiring familiarity. The Irish just don’t like apartments, check. We need to build higher, check. The underlying assumption is that this is all about what planners – or maybe just “we” – do or don’t permit, as if there are developers queuing up to build these properties. “In what city with a residential crisis would it not be permissible to build a delightfully designed four-storey residential block with high ceilings on the overwhelming proportion the city’s residential zoned land?” asks Kearns, apparently unaware that a: it’s perfectly permissible to do just that and b: it’s not profitable to do so. If the piece has an oddity, it’s how forthright it is in dismissing any value to Dublin’s green spaces, sneering at the notion of protecting views of parks and the Dublin Bay coast. In truth, it’s first-year level urbanism and it adds nothing to the discussion.

At this point you might be thinking the following: OK, fair enough. But why’s this blogger guy getting so bothered about a few newspaper pieces?

Well first, there’s a small but grating problem, which is the issue of how urbanism is discussed. It’s talked about as if it’s a single agreed-on product, rather than a varied and textured approach that changes from city to city and is always bespoke. “Sustainable urbanism” is increasingly used as a synonym for apartments, bikes, pedestrianised streets, and coffee-shops. If this really were what “urbanism” meant, you would end up classing most of Manhattan as an anti-urban. Be that as it may, “be more like Brussels” simply isn’t a useful maxim for Dublin, because Dublin isn’t Brussels. If “we” really don’t like apartments, then “we” need to come up with a distinctly bespoke approach, not throw our hands in the air at the limited views of Dublin’s unenlightened plebs.

But more importantly – there needs to be a realisation that the housing crisis is nothing to do with architecture, or urbanism, at all. The issue is almost entirely distinct from city-building. The cold truth is that this issue is nothing to do with design and everything to do with economics. There are vast numbers of vacant sites and properties in Dublin’s city centre; their lack of development is about profit margins. And yet we have a succession of articles about the housing crisis which do not even mention NAMA, which is absurd. An enormous number of urban sites were sold by a government agency to hedge funds that have no incentive to develop those sites, which has created a highly localised increase in site costs. None of these articles make viable propositions how we might lower house prices, and none of them acknowledge that falling house prices create their own serious problems in any case.

In the context of how and where we build, an honest understanding of urban principles is essential. In the context of the housing crisis, discussion of city-densities is just self-indulgent twaddle. Worst, it’s the flipside of the government rhetoric that dishonestly placed apartment sizes and planning delays at the heart of the narrative. This isn’t, and never has been, about design.

I won’t pretend I’ve got the answers to the dysfunctional property market, but I do know we have to ask the right questions. Dublin’s housing crisis is the product of a purely economic brutalisation, and all else is window dressing. If it’s going to stop, all parties – no matter how well-intentioned – need to realise that, now.

*Brady’s piece says “Dublin has one of the lowest densities of any capital city anywhere in the world.” This is not the case. Dublin’s population density is 9th of EU capitals, and 24th of all cities. It’s higher than Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast and slightly higher than Manchester – none of these cities have a shortage of affordable housing. So linking density to the housing crisis is, let’s say, highly questionable.

About Mike Morris

A British / Irish architect who practiced in Ireland and Ontario, now working in the U.K.
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