LAST WEEK, IBEC chief executive Danny McCoy warned that the island of Ireland needs to be ready to have a population of 10 million by 2050. He argued that investment on a massive scale is needed on that basis. But how realistic is the prediction – and, if it happens, could we deal with it?
CSO projections estimate that the population in the Republic could hit around 6.7 million by 2046, so a 10 million figure is possible, but not probable. Even that projection is in a scenario where Ireland’s fertility rate is high.
But let’s assume that huge swathes of the diaspora come home, there is low migration and fertility goes up slightly and, by New Year’s Eve 2049, the 10 millionth resident of the country is born.
In terms of density, Ireland could easily deal with the extra bodies. Sure, there’s tons of room:
A population growth from 4.6 million to 10 million would bring Ireland’s population density from 65.3 per square kilometre to 142 per square kilometre. That would make the country more dense than China, but still only the 83rd most dense country in the world.
The problem, as the next map shows, is that Irish people and people arriving in Ireland don’t spread out evenly. They spread out like this:
Dublin and its metropolitan area currently account for around 39% of Ireland’s population, not to mention those in a commuter belt that is getting further and further from the capital.
If Ireland’s population hit 10 million, that would mean 3.9 million people living in and around Dublin unless building and settling habits shift radically.
That is not to mention that Dublin’s low-rise suburbs are almost at saturation point when it comes to housing anyway. Blanchardstown, for example, has 105,000 residents and not a whole lot more green space to build on.
Dig up, stupid
One solution, says head of the School of Spatial Planning at DIT, Henk van der Kamp, is to fill in the gaps of what’s there and be ready to go up.
He says that Ireland could sustain such a rise in population, but planning needs to start soon.
“Planning is about being prepared. You always need to plan for a much higher population that is actually envisaged.
“We can be prepared in two ways. One, we can get the infrastructure in place, but we also need to decide what you are doing and how.”
He says that throwing an extra couple of million people into Dublin probably wouldn’t be very comfortable, but says that the idea of a “network city”, with dense urban centres from Dublin to Swords to Dundalk to Belfast, could work.
“A city of 3 million people isn’t a great idea, but a network city could do it. It would be a much bigger footprint, but it wouldn’t be a sprawl model. You could go away from the current city and take another node like Swords and build.
“If you have good transport connections, it can be done.”
He says that in places like Adamstown and Newbridge in particular, development has only happened on one side of the railway lines, contrary to best practice.
The market, he argues, cannot be allowed dictate long-term planning.
“It has to be done in a managed way. You’re talking about significant growth in population. There’s a lot of land around the railway lines that can be made denser.
“But you can’t let the market dictate planning.”
Building along a corridor requires planning and maybe a little bit of thinking outside the box.
The example van der Kamp uses is Charleville in Cork. Situated between Cork and Limerick cities, it is on the Dublin rail line and has vast space around its traditional town centre.
“If you think of Charleville. It is important in its strategic location. It’s a small town, with a lot of land. You could plan to put an American company there and build a new town there. It would be part of a corridor with Cork and Limerick and have regular rail links to Dublin.
“It takes a brave man to say “I’m putting 1 million people in Charleville, but if an American company wanted to build there, the IDA could attract them and start building.”
So, could we cope with 10 million people in 35 years?
“It can be done. There is plenty of time to buy the land and build the infrastructure. But it has to start now”.