Strategic policy-making and planning would support sustainable, thriving cities and ‘gentle density’, increasing housing supply.

Our MD Peter Horgan shares his opinion on the 15-minute city in the context of the urgent need to increase supply of all types of accommodation and a climate crisis.

Changes made to planning regulations in recent years, have moved us away from the 15-minute city concept and the benefits this could bring. Our transport policy is informed by the concept with the aim of lowering the volume of transport as part of efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, however, housing policy is currently not supporting progress in this regard, effectively preventing people from living in our cities, and increasing commute times for many.

In this piece, Peter highlights the fact that restrictive zoning and planning regulations inevitably limit supply. We need all-encompassing and progressive policies that enable multiple accommodation options for a functioning rental market.

MIT Study – ‘If we build it, they will come’

A recent MIT study and an article by Professor Carlo Ratti in the Financial Times, aims to quantify the 15-minute city, a concept which emerged in the second half of the 20th century to allow for mixed-use neighbourhoods, with a focus on convenience and freedom, opening up more time for people outside of long commutes.

Crucially, it relies on forward-looking, less restrictive zoning and planning to facilitate a level of density that improves a city and provides for vital supply of accommodation.

The results of the study showed that ‘people automatically construct their lifestyles around 15-minute walks if amenities such as parks and grocery stores are available within that radius.’

A key finding in the report, demonstrates how looser zoning regulation supported the success of a 15-minute city, focusing on New York, ‘where a 1961 zoning code, looser in some neighbourhoods than others, created ideal conditions for a natural experiment. The findings were striking: if the city permitted more commercial development, 15-minute amenities would naturally emerge.’ Professor Ratti concludes that the 15-minute city must be paired with investment in public transport.

Zoning & Planning Regulations

With changing demographics and new ways to use buildings and cities opening up, we are limited by zoning and planning regulations in Ireland which have become more restrictive due to the removal of the Build to Rent (BTR)/Co-Living planning code. This will lead to a low level of density in our city centres that fails to harness urban development, preventing us from creating cities that will accommodate the people who want to live there.

Density, at the right level, increases supply and allows for a variety of accommodation options, supporting the local economy – making the services and amenities that are required viable including retail, restaurants, public transport etc. Well-regulated, high-density rental products and schemes such as co-living and BTR have an important role to play in city centres. Currently in Ireland, the viability of city centre residential is limited due to height restrictions, land costs, and the removal of planning designations such as BTR and co-living.

Looking to Europe

Here in Ireland, the average minimum one-bed unit, at 41sqm, compares favourably with Europe where the average minimum unit size is 31sqm, a positive foundation for a more open regulatory environment to allow for urban development. The most densely populated city in Europe is Paris, it has a minimum one bed requirement of 25sqm and is moving towards becoming a 15-minute city.

In Ireland, given the disruption in the office market, we have a historic opportunity to invest in and re-energise our city centres, reversing mistakes of the past where there was too great a focus on commercial and not enough residential development. We must make residential development conversion viable and in particular, we have to allow it to compete against other uses.

Currently the majority of old vacant city centre offices are being converted to hotels or apart-hotels. This is a missed opportunity for housing schemes that are urgently needed.

Office-to-Resident Conversion – Rathmines House

Rathmines House, the first office-to-resident conversion launched by Grayling Properties is an example of how co-living schemes can give life to vacant properties and provide a practical solution to growing populations. The building was renovated into a high-quality residential development with 110 self-contained studio apartments and best-in-class, high-spec, stylish communal spaces. It will contribute to the development of the Rathmines area while providing much-needed accommodation for professionals at the same time.

Co-Living falls under the net of banned BTR schemes in Ireland. At a minimum, this could be reintroduced for the conversion of stranded or derelict office buildings.

Co-Living developments are based on 15-minute accessibility to high density employment clusters.

Although the 15-minute city, with all of its potential benefits, is central to Government policy, why are our planning regulations at odds with this? We have moved in the opposite direction by banning co-Living and BTR, whereas these schemes, when well-regulated and designed, have a vital role to play in accommodation supply.

‘Gentle Density’ and a Functioning Housing Market’

We know the laws of supply and demand and an increased supply of housing is critical to providing accommodation for our growing population. In a recent Financial Times article, the author writes about US states where ‘urban development has been made easy’. He points out that cities – California, New York and London, ‘are overheating and squeezing out young families because their planning systems place artificial constraints on supply, making urban development extremely difficult.’ Cities like Houston, Texas are densifying the existing city, where ‘a 1998 change to planning laws empowered landowners to turn one home into three. A crucial detail was the inclusion of an opt-out for individual neighbourhoods whose residents wished to keep things as they were, increasing the scheme’s durability.’

The author refers to Auckland’s 2016 upzoning plan which ‘worked in a similar way, creating new defaults that facilitate modest densification in areas close to the city centre and transit stations while keeping carve-outs for neighbourhoods of historical significance. In both cities, construction has soared and prices stayed much lower than elsewhere. Crucially, by focusing on what urbanists call “gentle density” — involving developments of anywhere from three to six storeys, designed with local character in mind — and building in exceptions, both plans have endured political upheaval.’

Again, functioning housing markets are the result of a more open, and sustainable, regulatory environment.

We are calling on the Irish government to consider current zoning and planning regulation in the broader context of sustainable cities, that they allow for co-living in vacant commercial buildings in city centres, and to adopt the recommendations from the Department of Housing Review of Co-living. Namely, larger minimum unit sizes, and, giving co-living its own planning designation, rather than it being included under residential.

Ultimately, to enable all factors in increasing supply.

In addition to key government policies such as ‘Housing for All’, we must also look at the rental sector and well-regulated, high-density rental products and schemes in city centres.

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