In Thinking Ahead, research carried out by Amárach Research, Professor Ronan Lyons and Dr. Lorcan Sirr, there are key findings and recommendations which are of use to public officials, healthcare providers and legislators and for developers and designers. Among its many findings, it concluded that the vast majority of older people, 89%, wanted to stay in their current homes, as we have already heard. That means, for the vast majority of our elderly population, continuing to live in our suburbs and in the countryside, but are our suburbs and our countryside ready for the changes that demographic forecasting promises over the next decades? I want to look at the why, the where and the what of housing our ageing population.
In the first case, as to why, as we have heard already, in Ireland, as elsewhere, people are living longer. The population of Ireland in the 2016 census was 4.8 million with projected population increases for the next 30 years ranging from 8% to 25%. The population aged over 65 has increased by 19.1% between the last two censuses with an increase of 67,500 aged over 85. However, the pattern is not uniform. Fingal and Kildare have the youngest population, both rapidly growing urban areas with office-based employment. Kerry, Mayo and Leitrim, Ireland's least densely populated rural counties, have the oldest population.
Most of the housing built in Ireland over the past century has been three and four-bedroom houses. Of the 2 million homes in Ireland in 2016, according to the census of 2016, 1.7 million of them were family houses. There were 860,000 families with children in the State at that time. There were, therefore, 900,000 more family homes than families. We need one and two-bedroom apartments in villages, towns and cities, both as starter homes and step-down homes for older people.
The RIAI housing policy of 2016 expands on the principle of densifying our suburbs and of rejuvenating older neighbourhood centres into higher density urban village centres by examining the principles of what makes a good neighbourhood. These are the sorts of neighbourhoods with a mix of homes to satisfy the needs of all members of society, not just families but also single people, young couples and, in particular, our older citizens.
These are places that have a mixed population in the sorts of numbers that make public services, neighbourhood amenities, shopping and public transport affordable and accessible. The question is whether our current suburbs and neighbourhoods can accommodate both an increase in population while also allowing older people to remain in their community.
The architect, David Dwyer, director of Box Urban, has looked at the issue of increasing the population in our existing suburbs. He analysed two typical suburban neighbourhoods in west Dublin. Ballycragh, built in the 1990s and Ballyroan, built in the 1960s, both at a density of 17 to 22 units per hectare, that is, eight to ten to the acre, the standard old-style density in Ireland. He defines a good neighbourhood as being able to provide all one's daily needs within a five minute walk of one's home and as needing a population of between 7,000 to 10,000 people to support a financially viable modern neighbourhood village centre. The study investigated the opportunities to rejuvenate existing neighbourhood centres and increase the numbers of houses within a five minute walk.
Ballyroan neighbourhood centre serves a population of 4,000 within five minutes walking distance. Ballycragh neighbourhood centre serves a population of less than 1,500. Therefore, they significantly underperform on the viability test.
The study concluded that by making better use of the existing neighbourhood centre lands, by removing existing barriers to pedestrian movement within the area, by making better use of corner sites and back-lands and by building along the edges of main access roads and redundant open spaces, it was possible to increase the five minute walk catchment in Ballyroan from 4,000 people to 11,000 people and in Ballycragh from 1,500 to 10,800.
The figures confirm that in Dublin if we build out all currently zoned lands at the minimum recommended density of 50 units per hectare and densify just 40% of our suburbs at the quantum that he achieved in his study, we would comfortably accommodate population increase over the next 30 years without having to rezone a single acre of new land.
Realistically, however, there is a job of education needed, first, to demonstrate to people that building more homes and services in their backyard will bring real benefits and, second, to have support from our public representatives to promote sustainable mixed communities. It is necessary to halt the sprawl of our cities and our larger towns. It is unnecessary and unaffordable.
We all recognise that our rural towns and villages have suffered the consequences of recession and consequent migration. Meanwhile, there are large numbers of older people living unconnected lives in the countryside. A possible win-win situation would involve encouraging them to move back into their local towns and villages.
Local authorities are starting to plan for the future densification of their areas, whether urban, suburban or rural, and to prepare masterplans that promote the principle of densification and the provision of universal access. With careful planning, we should be looking at regenerating our towns and villages by adapting existing domestic housing for older users, improving the public realm, services and amenities and centralising our services to encourage older people to move into town.
We need to revisit the concept of downsizing. It is not a bad word. Downsizing can be liberating for those who wish to enjoy less encumbered lives and may wish to be nearer the centre of a supportive community. We must plan it properly and architects are well positioned to make a significant contribution, not just in designing exemplar homes, but also exemplar places.
Currently in Ireland there are just two types of housing for the elderly, either at home or in a home. In the private sector, as a housing architect, Mr. O'Mahony's experience of over 50s planned living, as it is known in the UK and USA, and which he has looked at in some detail over the past couple of decades, is disheartening. Rather than replicating the good neighbourhood model of young and old, single people and families living together in a supportive community, what he has seen is gated communities of considerable means living lives segregated from the surrounding community in what he termed as "gilded cages". He considered that we should discourage this model and while not a lover of regulation that is not backed by evidence, regulation needs to be introduced that ensures a quantum of age-appropriate housing is delivered in all our private housing schemes and mixed tenure developments. Currently it is necessary to audit the availability of local crèche facilities, for instance, before making a planning application. Similarly, local retail capacity studies are required to accompany commercial development applications. The same should happen with housing for older people. It is now time to propose that housing typologies in housing developments, particularly private developments, match the age demographic of the area in which the development is being proposed.
Community facilities provision in large scale developments, including build-to-rent housing, should also be carefully assessed to complement the needs of future older residents.
In public sector housing, there have been social housing options in the form of old people's dwellings, OPDs, and sheltered housing facilities in the past. However, there are no options for those who are above the financial thresholds to access social housing but do not have sufficient means to support their older age accommodation needs. The research identified a very large grouping of older people who did not want to be in residential care at any cost. They still have the facility and mobility to live independent lives but require some supports to allow that to happen. Over the next 30 years, we must provide for these people with housing options to downsize within communities that include an element of care but reinforce independent living and are affordable. The Thinking Ahead study called it housing with support and public sector proposals for an exemplar scheme in Inchicore are being developed by Dublin City Council in collaboration with the approved housing body, AHB. In its vision document, the following carefully considered thoughts of a future occupier are shared with us.
I would like an opportunity to live in my place, with my books and music, with people I like and some whom I love - who will know when to talk and when to stay quiet. I would like that place to be where I can be myself, I would like that place designed to be a gathering place and a place of contentment and a place of aloneness. A place where I can be as independent as I can be and dependent when I have to be.
Who could ask for a better definition of home than that?