Monday, December 16, 2013

Review of Landscape and Society in Contemporary Ireland by Brendan McGrath (2013, Cork University Press)

Whilst I was away in China my review of Brendan McGrath's book, Landscape and Society in Contemporary Ireland appeared in the Irish Times.  It ran thus:

Two of the key attractions for visitors to Ireland are its landscape and people. In survey after survey, tourists positively mention the beauty of the Irish countryside. Such praise is forthcoming in spite of the rapid and extensive developments that have occurred in rural Ireland over the past 40 years, including extensive one-off house building, sprawling suburbanisation, and the expansion of infrastructures such as motorways, electricity pylons, wind farms, and telephone masts. 

It seems, however, that whilst visitors appreciate the landscapes of Ireland, the Irish hold a more ambivalent relationship, one that prioritises property and individual rights rather than conservation, heritage and the common good. 

This is the principal argument of Brendan McGrath in Landscape and Society in Contemporary Ireland. The Irish, he contends, are often ill at ease in the places they inhabit, mostly viewing land as a commodity and resource rather than an amenity that needs to be tended and carefully planned and managed.

The consequence has been little consensus at both local and national scales concerning how development should occur, plenty of contestation over particular attempts to alter landscapes through construction activity, and little in the way of planning reform or landscape designations that would protect landscapes from negative change.

Through 11 short chapters McGrath provides an overview of how the Irish understand the landscapes they inhabit using a number of case examples that are richly supplemented with photographs, maps and plans. The argument developed contends that the relationship between people and the land is shaped principally by culture, nature, political economy and aesthetics, which have a particular configuration in the Irish case given its colonial past, localist politics, and weak regulation.

McGrath contends that whilst clientelism is a feature of Irish planning it is often not needed in practice as local authorities share the non-utilitarian position of local people and facilitate planning applications that run counter to national policy and international good practice. This is aided by weakly applied and contradictory planning policies across scales – local, county, regional, national, European.

Moreover, he notes, that the Irish government’s commitment to landscape protection rarely and barely extends beyond the aspirational and collapses at the first sign of opposition from local landowners worried about the loss of possible future development potential.

In other words, there is a gulf between planning theory and practice and an absence of working consensus across different stakeholders that enables ad hoc individualism at the expense of the common good. Although there is a balance in the coverage, with McGrath setting out the positions of different constituents, it is clear that his vision for housing and property development is one of concentrated urban development in the towns and cities, with a containment of low density suburbanisation, and nucleated villages in rural areas with limitations on one-off housing.

In both cases there is an appeal to sustainability, in terms of travel patterns and service and utility provision, but most particularly to landscape conservation and protecting habitats and cultural and landscape heritage. This is underpinned by a strong sense of visual aesthetics and the notion that “physical beauty enriches our lives.” 

It’s most definitely a planner’s and conservationist’s view of how land and landscape should be managed, forwarding an approach that is common across Europe and elsewhere. It is one that most Irish planners will be sympathetic to. However, given the widespread distrust and subversion of planning by politicians and the general population, it is a view that will not find favour amongst many stakeholders.

Aware of such opposition to his standpoint, McGrath’s suggestion for gaining consensus is a participatory approach wherein the local community is more actively engaged in planning and managing the landscape. For example, he suggests that protected areas need to be run by, with and for local people, and have both social and economic objectives as well as conservation, rather than be directed at a distance by government agencies in Dublin or Brussels.

For all of its positive qualities, the book does have two shortcomings.

First, the analysis is overly descriptive and lacks depth of argument. This is perhaps to be expected. It is a book aimed at a general, interested audience rather than a contribution to academic debates. Nevertheless, the account would have benefitted from more explanation and from an engagement with more normative questions about how the relationship between Irish society and landscape should be formulated.

Second, McGrath’s notion of landscape limited in scope and the title should have the word “Rural” at its start, given it barely discusses urban landscapes. Indeed, with the exception of a couple paragraphs about suburbanisation and the management of development on Howth peninsula, the towns and cities of Ireland are entirely absent from the analysis. Even villages barely get a mention.

The urban in Ireland is apparently devoid of landscapes worthy of discussion despite its inherent landscaping, architectural design and cultural heritage. For McGrath landscape is synonymous with countryside and, more specifically, romanticised, scenic vistas of mountains, bogs, lakes and coastline rather than agricultural land or Big House estates. Nearly all his examples are drawn from the Western seaboard stretching from Kerry to Donegal and refer to locales acknowledged to be areas of natural beauty.

Nonetheless, the book provides an interesting and engaging account of the relationship between landscape and society in contemporary Ireland and raises important questions about the nature of this association.

Given the piecemeal, wasteful and often damaging developments of the Celtic Tiger era and the on-going competing demands on Ireland’s landscapes it is clear that we need a full and frank debate about how land is managed. McGrath’s book provides a solid, accessible foundation to inform such a debate.

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