Our Future Cities

Populations across the island of Ireland are expected to grow significantly over the coming 20 years. Landscape architects Paul Tully and Edward Frampton look at where investment must be prioritised in our main cities to ensure they support sustainable growth and remain attractive and affordable places to live, work and visit.


The island of Ireland’s main cities from Belfast and Dublin to Cork and Derry-Londonderry are growing fast. According to Ireland’s National Planning Framework, an extra one million people will be living in ROI by 2040, with the need for around 660,000 extra jobs. Similarly, NI’s population is set to grow by around 4.2 per cent by 2026'Belfast Telegraph', to just over two million, with Belfast alone looking to support an extra 66,000 people and 24,000 jobs by 2035, according to the city’s draft Local Development Plan 2035.

Faced with similar challenges, including housing shortages, we need to make the most of development and redevelopment opportunities in our cities to ensure they remain sustainable, affordable, vibrant, resilient and well-connected places to live, visit and work. To ensure our cities are fit for the future, we believe urban investment needs to be targeted. Here, we suggest five opportunity areas:

Sustainable, active transport

People need to be able to move more efficiently within, to and from our cities if they are to remain accessible and attractive places to live — and to support social cohesion and economic growth. Recent projects that support improved connectivity include Belfast’s Glider bus system, which moves people in and out of the city from west to east, running at seven to 10-minute intervals. Meanwhile, Dublin’s Metrolink project is included in the National Development Plan 2018–2027 as a key solution to connect Swords and Dublin Airport with the city centre, improving accessibility and journey times for a potential 50 million passengers per year.

Crucially, transport infrastructure needs to work with the form of our cities. This could be achieved through designating car-free areas and through multi-modal transportation systems that link driving, public transport and active transport modes such as walking and cycling to way finding. Encouraging a cultural shift away from cars to more sustainable transport will enhance overall city resilience by reducing carbon emissions and air pollution while improving health.

Spaces for people

We need to create spaces that favour people and city life, support wellbeing and provide cultural and sporting opportunities. The redevelopment of Cork’s North, South and Tivoli Docks is a good example. We’re currently developing masterplans for the sites, imagining what the city’s vast waterfront docklands could look like over the next 10–50 years. With the capacity for 10,000 residential units, commercial, leisure and office space, the scheme has the potential to add unique open spaces and high-quality public realm to the city.

To create the vibrant, open, green community spaces and amenities needed to support growth and attract people, we need to create healthy streets and secure spaces that focus on people and that are accessible for all. Streets need to be recognised as public places, with parks and open spaces designed for city life while also catering for the needs of wildlife and ecology.



Smarter services

Investing in ‘smarter’ ways of doing things will be crucial to solving future problems, such as the use of real time information to improve connections and transport links. Our cities need to plan what “smart” means for them, identify which technologies they already have and bring resources and people together.

The All Ireland Smart Cities Forum is a great cross-border initiative bringing together city officials from Belfast, Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford and Derry-Londonderry to share, learn about and advance smart city programmes. Meanwhile, Belfast’s 20 ‘Smart Hubs’ rolled out across the capital city in October 2018, created by London company Pulse, provide free Wi-Fi, mobile phone charging and public information messages, as well as data-capture services monitoring footfall and pollution levels. They’re the first such hubs in the UK and also provide an instant link to emergency services and a defibrillator.

Faster, more innovative housing construction

The draft Belfast Local Development Plan includes plans to create new neighbourhoods, setting aside land for 31,600 homes between 2020–2035. ROI meanwhile aims to provide 40 per cent of its future housing needs by building and renewing existing stock in built-up areas, including its cities. So how do we hit these targets affordably and sustainably?

We need to deliver homes faster and cheaper through innovations such as off-site manufacturing, where components are built in factories to excellent design standards with programmes delivered in around half the time of traditional construction, significantly reducing costs and materials waste while increasing energy efficiency.

We also need to make housing more accessible. Innovations in flexible housing present an opportunity for policymakers to progress important urban policy priorities. Housing units with smaller footprints inherently lead to increased density and may promote more efficient and sustainable use of resources. While per-square-foot rents in many existing micro-units exceed that of their larger counterparts, per-unit rents can be lower, providing more housing within ranges that more people can afford.

There’s also the potential for more efficient use of existing city centre buildings such as converting upper floors into apartments, helping to bolster city centre economics and sustainability of the high street. Finally, good integrated design should ensure the interface between living space and city infrastructure is complimentary, with the transition between public and private space carefully considered. 

Resilience to shocks

With all of the island of Ireland's major cities being coastal, designing for resilience against flooding is fundamental, but we must ensure that engineering solutions are well integrated with high quality public realm design. Placing greater emphasis on introducing sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) such as green roofs and permeable paving into new developments will not only improve flood resilience but also an area’s visual appeal.

Cork, a city built within the River Lee, has a street structure that reflects the river that flows beneath it. Our work in the South Docks reimagines this 250-acre zone as a sustainable resilient city district that has inbuilt flood resilience through a network of open spaces that positively act as flood water storage while also defining the character of the district.

A vibrant new city district

Tivoli Docks, Cork

A major transformational project for Cork, Tivoli Docks is a 61-hectare site along the north quays of the River Lee directly east of Cork city centre. With over three kilometres of waterfront to the south, a rolling hillside residential landscape to the north, as well as key transport connection opportunities along both the N8 road and the Cork-Midleton rail line, the site possesses a unique and exciting development opportunity for Cork and its region. Tivoli is unique in that it has all the ingredients to become a best practice urban regeneration project and a model in sustainable development that meets national, regional and local objectives, creating a vibrant and inclusive community that supports low energy use and low emissions in accordance with climate change adaptation principles. AECOM’s multidisciplinary team is helping Cork City Council formulate its vision for the site, which includes a sustainable new city district with the capacity to deliver 4500 residential units with a population of 12,000 residents, towards the development of a Local Development Plan.

Putting life back into a city’s heart

Belfast restore and revitalise project

Following the fire in Primark’s Bank Buildings in the heart of Belfast city, multiple streets were cut off as a safety cordon surrounded the damaged structure. As a result, traffic has been restricted, footfall in the area has reduced dramatically and employment has been affected, with an estimated £3 million a month economic impact.AECOM was asked by Belfast City Council to look at ways to encourage footfall back into the city and help local traders adversely affected. As a short-term measure we installed AstroTurf with colourful boxed seating areas and planting along the closed roads and bus lanes. Market stalls along Donegall Place have provided a temporary place of business for traders who have been relocated for safety. Additional lighting and window dressing is helping to brighten areas which would previously have been underused. Family orientated attractions, including a temporary stage, outdoor cinema, artwork and street entertainment have been added at various locations to revitalise the area and offer additional reasons to visit the city centre. Longer term proposals include permanent seating installations, pocket parks and projections on vacant buildings to provide attractive areas to visit.The fire was an unprecedented shock to the city and required many parties to come together rapidly to discuss options, with AECOM liaising not only with council departments and traders, but also Market Place Europe, Cathedral Quarter Trust, DfI Roads, and other statutory bodies.