Proximity 2.0: Cutting transport costs and emissions through local integration

Emer O’Siochru

Rather than bringing similar activities closer together to reap the benefits of scale and agglomeration, different activities should be situated beside each other to be more energy and carbon efficient.

“is ar scáth a chéile, a mhaireann na daoine”
Seanfhocal Gaeilge

“In the shadow or shelter of each other, live the people”
Old Irish saying

This old saying tells us there was a time when it was an uncontested fact in Ireland that living close to each other was essential for a happy human life. That human life thrives when human actions are so confined in space as to impact on others today seems strange given our current desire for ever more expansion and separation in our living and working arrangements. Did this old saying emerge from a need to make the best of a bad situation or is it a forgotten but essential truth that still has resonance today?

This paper will advance the case that closeness, or ‘proximity,’ was valued as life enhancing in the past — and for good reason, despite the propaganda of the rural revisionists. It describes what I call the Proximity Principle 2.0, the idea of a redefined and augmented ‘proximity’ that has a great deal to offer communities in the troubling times ahead. There’s more than a little bit of magic about the notion that something unexpected and wonderful can come simply by confining and combining existing elements differently, but that’s exactly what the Proximity Principle 2.0 offers us.

In Ireland over the past 50 years, we’ve invested heavily in putting distance into our living and working arrangements. We live apart from each other, work far from where we live, shop far from where we work, grow food far from where we eat and so on. Our support systems are all fall-flung and invisible; electricity is generated remotely, waste is processed remotely, knowledge is generated remotely to our everyday experience. Something profound has happened to the way we live.

Fig 1. The way we live now: scattered houses, Co. Galway, Ireland.

This paper does not explore what happened; others better able to do so will contribute to that topic in this book. Instead it will look to the past for clues to the immediate future.

Irish settlement patterns myths

First we need to debunk some myths. Contrary to what is generally believed, the Irish people are not culturally predisposed to isolated settlement patterns. In fact, the historical records and the maps show that Irish people consciously chose to live close together where and when they had the freedom to do so. The Vikings founded many of our coastal towns but the Irish had their own proto town, set in the fertile plains and river valleys. These were the monastic settlements of the early Christian era and were centres of trade as much as of learning and piety.

What is less well known is that as the population increased, Irish society was developing the village structure along the European model in the 16th and 17th centuries, i.e. farmer and farm labourer families living alongside artisans and small-scale merchants in compact mixed settlements. In these villages, farmers travelled from the village everyday to the tillage and orchard in-fields and further to the out-field pastures.

The Cromwellian re-conquest put an abrupt halt to this evolution; towns and villages were broken up and new settlers and the non-rebellious installed on isolated farms. Only in the areas protected by the powerful Norman Butler family around Counties Kilkenny, South Tipperary and Waterford can we see surviving evidence for this farm/village from the 1830 OSi map records.

Fig 2. The way we lived then 1: this 1816 map of Listrolin, a farm village in Co. Kilkenny, shows how farms and houses were clustered together in the past.

The displaced Irish were prevented from coming together in the better lands, but, given the relative freedom of the poorer lands on coasts and hillsides, they again formed settlements. We can see evidence of this in the many clachán settlements on Ireland’s western seaboard, today mostly abandoned. This seaboard contained the highest density of rural population in Europe in the first half of the 19th century, when the entire island hosted and fed eight million people.

This evidence is countered by those who claim that the Irish had little choice but to live in these dense settlements because all of the better land was retained by the absentee landlords and let out to conforming tenants. Another argument is that famine was brought on by the unrestrained breeding of the Irish, who foolishly ignored the fact that the poor land could not maintain their families. In fact, the land maintained them pretty well for many generations; they did this by using the nutrients from the sea to feed the soil, having well-organised pasturage systems and using the efficient lazy-bed system of cultivation — until, of course, the potato failed. Contemporary accounts tell of healthy, handsome, happy people, even if a bit unwilling to take instruction from their “betters”.

Fig 3. The way we lived then, 2. Terman, a clachan village in Co. Kerry, demonstrates how densely people once chose to live together.

The native Irish had to wait until the 18th century for the political and economic conditions that would foster the founding of the market villages and towns most of which survive today. These new villages and towns were centres of trade and exchange, not the homes of farmers. While they were often laid out by the freehold-owning landlord, they were built by Irish Catholics who had won a significant interest in their property in the form of long leases and lifelong leases.

This model was in complete contrast to the village-development model in England, where the landlord offered only limited tenancies in buildings that he built. This newly propertied merchant and professional class of Catholics led the struggle for the Land Acts, a struggle that was ultimately to redistribute the agricultural land and which, from that platform of security, later led to the national struggle for nationhood. So it can be said, not unreasonably, that the Irish villages and towns can be thanked for national independence.

The loss of Proximity 1.0

Fig 4. Castlepollard, a market village in Co. Westmeath, also shows a compact development pattern

Over the years the native Irish began to accept that living in isolated farm-steads was the natural order, its original imposition forgotten. This loss in folk memory led to a second great scattering, this time guided by well-intentioned motives.

After the terrible Famine of the 1840s, the improving Congested District Boards consolidated the fragmented holdings of clachán dwellers into separate freehold farms and individual farmhouses, breaking up the settlements in the processes. It never crossed the minds of these public servants that the villages had any value in the new Ireland they were building, nor that consolidated farms could be provided at the same time as retaining the existing settlements in use.

Not only did this policy undermine the survival of the Irish language by making it synonymous with isolated rural life, it also destroyed much of the potential for economic development by destroying the potential for specialisation.

Figs 4a, 4b and 4c. The Congested Districts of the 19th century shown in the map on the left were in most of the same places as today’s Clar areas of Disadvantage (middle map) and where the National Spatial Strategy has identified a “weak” village structure.

Figs 5a and 5b. These cartograms show the areas of the counties drawn in proportion to their populations. They reveal how some populations, particularly in the West, shrank from their level before the Famine while the population of Dublin soared. Source: Martin Charlton, (2007), NUI, Maynooth.

The evidence for this conclusion is convincing. Today, the area where the Congested Districts Board operated along the Western coast coincides almost exactly with the areas of disadvantage and population loss identified by the government’s ‘Clar’ designation (Fig. 4b) and the areas identified in the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) as having weak village structuration (Fig.4c).

The loss of village structure and thus of the benefits of proximity led to the loss of opportunity, especially for non-farming families, which in turn led to mass emigration of the young and enterprising. Martin Charlton’s cartographic project which adjusts the areas of counties according to their population makes the results of this very clear. The first map illustrates the population before the Famine; the second population loss and gain by county size in 2002. (Fig.5a and 5b)

Proximity 2.0: some definitions

Proximity has recently been rediscovered and to a certain extent reinvented as a positive principle, having earlier been eclipsed for many years by the potential of globalisation and the elimination of distance by cheap fossil fuels. A Google search brings up a surprising number of incarnations in widely differing contexts. Each context illustrates a particular attribute, and the combination of all these is what I term Proximity 2.0.

Definition 1, the most familiar interpretation or use of the term, comes from the environmental sector and refers to waste-management systems.

“The proximity principle advocates that waste should be disposed of (or otherwise managed) close to the point at which it is generated, thus aiming to achieve responsible self-sufficiency at a regional/or sub regional level”

Basel Convention 1989

In this case, the proximity principle enables and delivers “responsible self-sufficiency” which is something we will need in times of emergency.

Definition 2 comes from the technical field of industrial processes.

“Proximity is the main tool used in manufacturing to enable one-piece flow, flexibility and to quickly assist another station on the U shaped production line”

Principles of Product Development Flow 2009.

Here, proximity fosters smooth-flowing processes where glitches can be spotted and rectified quickly. This kind of flexibility is essential to resilience building, again a useful attribute in uncertain times.

Definition 3 comes from the knowledge economy discourse.

“In spite of increasing global flows of ideas, capital, goods and labor, the rise of a knowledge-based economy and changes in the organization of the innovation process have actually increased the value of geographical proximity to innovation.”

Sonn and Storper 2003

Geographical nearness fosters the random encounters that spark new ideas, something that no IT media has been able to replicate. This runs counter to the argument that all you need for innovation in the countryside is fast broadband.

Definition 4 comes from town and country spatial planning and is familiar to local government administrators, professionals and social and environmental advocates.

“Proximity should be favoured over dispersal in settlements to encourage community interaction, make public transport, local services and environmental initiatives more viable”

Campaign to Protect Rural England 2008

Rural services are in decline in Ireland and will be under greater threat with the New Emergency. The more dispersed the settlement, the greater the cost of providing its population with the services and maintenance it needs. Even though councils coped reasonably well with floods and snow of Winter 2009-10, rural roads remain potholed and pitted as budgets were exhausted by the immediate emergency measures. A second harsh Winter would render some roads impassible.

Definition 5 stems from economics and the theories of US economist and writer Henry George.

“This premise that parks have a positive impact on property values is known as the ‘proximity principle’. It suggests that the value of living near a park is captured in the price of surrounding properties.”

Frederick Law Olmstead 1856 (Olmstead was the architect who laid out Central Park, New York City).

This aspect of proximity is the most revealing and useful when we plan for the future because it tells us that investing in useful infrastructure or desirable amenities can be paid for from the increased value of the nearby/adjacent land. Proximity, here, generates value, and if recouped by the community, also generates money to pay for further services.

In sum, then, Proximity 2.0, combining all of its benefits of its various aspects, offers the following:

  1. Enables recycling of waste especially for energy
  2. Creates flexibility and resilience
  3. Fosters innovation
  4. Makes services viable
  5. Adds value to land

What Proximity 2.0 is not is about is agglomeration. Agglomeration is a term used to describe the benefits of putting similar uses together. It is familiar in retail studies i.e. retailers benefit from other retailers selling similar goods nearby as consumers are attracted to the choice and convenience offered and increased footfall leads to increased turnover for everyone. The agglomeration effect often outweighs the advantage of a local monopoly in particular classes of goods. Neither is Proximity 2.0 linked to ‘benefits of scale’, such as the efficiencies made possible by building and servicing a large number of similar houses or other buildings in a limited area.

On the contrary, Proximity 2.0 describes the advantages of placing very different, not similar, uses and functions in close relationship. The advantages that accrue to agglomeration and scale are dependant on cheap energy and globalization, and this produces an apparent simplification locally that masks a remote and therefore opaque and potentially vulnerable complexity.

‘Localisation’ is an emerging concept used by environmentalists advocating the reversal of globalization. But it is a modest and uninspiring concept on which to base an emergency response. Proximity 2.0 goes beyond negative definitions to suggest potential synergies that emerge when different activities and functions are linked at the local scale. The next section describes some examples of these benefits.

Applications of the Proximity Principle:

The Natural Step [1] is a framework for industry and business covering the generation and processing of waste. The framework builds on a basic understanding of what makes life possible, how our biosphere functions and how we are part of the earth’s natural systems. It points out that in a sustainable society, nature would not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust or created by scientists and that people would not be subject to conditions that systemically undermined their capacity to meet their needs. The Natural Step seeks to make these systems apparent to producers through a rigorous checklist process and the use of a non-political logic that eliminates pollutants through design.

Similarly, Natural Capitalism [2], developed by the US-based Rocky Mountain Institute that researches and advises on sustainable settlement, building and transportation design, describes the objective of ‘industrial ecology’. This strategy discourages forms of amoral purchasing arising from ignorance of what goes on at a distance and implies a political economy that greatly values natural capital and relies on what Amory Lovins calls ‘instructional capital’ to design and maintain each unique industrial ecology.

These principles converge and locate in the concept of ‘Industrial Symbiosis’. The tasks of identifying and eliminating the unsustainable increase in substances and deleterious conditions and of eliminating ignorance of far-flung effects is solved through the Proximity Principle 2.0 because it places different but related production systems physically adjacent to each other. This makes the problems and solutions clear without the need for checklists and renders those problems solvable without a huge investment in instructional capital.

The Municipality of Kalundborg in Denmark was one of the first to introduce the world to Industrial Symbiosis when it applied the Proximity Principle 2.0 in industrial-estate planning. In Kalundborg, all waste is someone else’s raw material. Symbiosis here means the co-existence of diverse organisms that may benefit from one another. A symbiosis network links a 1500MW coal-fired power plant with the community and other companies. Surplus heat from this power plant is used to heat 3,500 local homes in addition to a nearby fish farm, the sludge from which is then sold as a fertilizer. Steam from the power plant is sold to Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical and enzyme manufacturer and a Statoil plant. This reuse of heat reduces the thermal pollution of hot wastewater discharged to a nearby fjord. Additionally, a by-product from the power plant’s sulfur dioxide scrubber contains gypsum that is sold to a wallboard manufacturer. Almost all of the manufacturer’s gypsum needs are met in this way, reducing the amount of open-pit mining needed. Furthermore, fly ash and clinker from the power plant are utilized for road building and cement production.

Industrial symbiosis

Fig 6. This flow chart illustrates how the waste and by-products of companies on a municipal industrial estate in Kalundborg, Denmark, become the raw materials for other companies.
Source: Ecodecision, Spring 1996.

This kind of symbiotic co-operation has developed spontaneously over several decades and today comprises some 20 projects. The exchange of residual products between the companies is laid out in Fig.6. The collaborating partners also benefit financially from the co-operation because the individual agreement within the symbiosis is based on commercial principles. All projects are environmentally and financially sustainable. It’s a win-win scenario for all concerned. (Fig.6)

According to Amory B. Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, 19th- and 20th-century model power plants had a higher cost and outage rate than the grid, so both supply and demand had to be aggregated through the grid to make sure that electricity production continued without interruption. In the 21st-century model, in contrast, power plants have a lower cost and higher reliability than the grid, so affordable and reliable supply should now logically originate at or near the customer for security of electricity supply. Indeed this has been happening in Fig. 7 below we can see that non-utility i.e. non–power company electrical generation, has been increasing since the mid 1980s.

Fig 7. This graph, from Amory Lovins’ book Small is Profitable, shows how, after a period in which very few US consumers produced their own electricity, more are beginning to do so at the expense of the commercial utility companies

In his book Small is Profitable, Lovins measured the benefits of ‘distributed’ or electrical generation in proximity to consumption at two to three times that of remote generation, more if the grid is congested or reliability required. If the heat from electrical generation can be used, then the benefits double again. There are often other extra-over benefits or positive side effects or ‘externalities’ as economists call them for certain sites.

We can see these benefits in Güssing, a small town in Austria that today has a rape-oil refinery for the production of bio-diesel, a district heating unit supplied with wood, and a state-of-the-art biomass-power plant with a generation of 2 MW electricity and 4.5 MW heat. The town is now 45% self-sufficient in energy and has attracted 50 new companies, more than 1,000 new jobs, and total increased sales volume of 13m Euro per year. An eco-tourist business now sees 1,600 visitors per week visit the town, eager to learn how it reinvigorated itself.

The German town of Lünen, north of Dortmund, will use organic material from local farms to provide electricity for its 90,000 residents, producing 6.8mw to power and heat 26,000 houses. The gas is distributed through a new biogas pipeline network being built underground using a horizontal drilling robot.

Fig 8. Farm anaerobic digester Wexford.

Using the process of anaerobic digestion (AD), biogas can be produced from agricultural wastes, mainly slurries, of which there is an abundance in parts of Ireland. However, manure-only AD will not generate enough biogas and thus sufficient electricity to give a good return on its costs, as manure at best produces 20 cubic metres of biogas per tonne. Mixing bio-waste from commercial and municipal brown bins transforms the economics of farm-based ADs. An AD facility would be financed easily through gate fees (the fee chargeable for accepting wastes for processing or transformation), along with the money earned from the extra energy production that comes from the higher energy content of bio-waste. Hauling bulky manure from many widespread locations to a central point is expensive; taking the smaller quantity of pasteurised bio-waste to a rural location near or in a livestock farm has lower costs and lower CO2 emissions. It also returns food waste to where it was generated, thus closing the nutrient cycle.

If the 1.5 million tonnes of manure produced annually by 200,000 adult cattle, about 5% of the Irish herd, was augmented with 300,000 tonnes of bio-waste to give a 60/40% mix in dry matter terms, rural ADs could produce 180GWh per year. This digestion of 1.5 million tonnes of manure would also reduce greenhouse emissions by about 150,000 tonnes per year in terms of CO2 or its equivalent in other gases. This is 2.5 times the reduction required from manure management by the Irish government’s 2000 Climate Change Strategy, and there are also energy-related savings. Another significant benefit would come from the reduction in artificial fertiliser nitrogen use by around 400 tonnes per year of nitrogen, thereby preventing about 100 tonnes per year of nitrogen getting into watercourses.

Simply combining food production and consumption close together brings benefits to consumer and producer by cutting out the middleman and eliminating transport costs. Traceability is not a problem in the Herrmanndorf farm market in Hanover, Germany. Herrmanndorf, originally a sausage manufacturer, vertically integrated all aspects of food production, processing and sales in one location. Beef, milk and pork are produced on the farm and neighbouring farms using own-grown grass and cereals. Animals are farmed, slaughtered and processed on site using energy from their wastes. Beer is brewed and bread is baked from local cereals and sold in the farm market in the same way. Accommodation for workers and trainees is provided on site. The farm is a popular weekend destination for Hanover residents who enjoy a day out while doing their shopping.

Fig 9. Herrmannsdorf shop and animal housing, Hanover, Germany.

Rural settlements in Ireland are uniquely well-positioned to respond to the developing crisis. Local agriculture can produce food, biomass for energy and structural materials and fibre for construction, providing all the materials for village production and reproduction. Hemp is a neglected but particularly versatile crop that offers seeds and oil for human consumption, fibre for paper and clothing and hurd for use as an insulant and binder in construction. Combined with lime, hemp forms a composite material that has many useful qualities. Hemp-lime is insulating, fire-proof, rot-proof, vermin-proof and moisture-buffering. With passive design, it can eliminate the need for space-heating systems in new homes. Hemp-lime with timber construction saves 50 tonnes of CO2 and stores 5 tons of CO2. Hemp can be grown locally in normal crop rotations with low inputs, and is easily harvested and processed with conventional machinery. Lime and other additives are widely available in Ireland.

We now come to the most overlooked form of waste, human sewage. It’s not usually included in waste-management plans but lumped under a special category called ‘wastewater’ in government and local government regulations. Water could hardly be described as a waste so it must be something we have put into the water and the question is why? Conventional sewage systems consume scarce freshwater and dilute useful nutrients. The nutrients are carried to rivers and the sea, where they are extremely harmful causing eutrophication. In turn, more nutrients have to be produced for agriculture, causing depletion of fossil resources and high energy demand. Considerable fossil energy is used to treat sewage and grey water this way. There is, however, a better way than gravity sewerage pipework to transport human waste to treatment and processing facilities. Vacuum-based transportation, another Victorian invention, is already used successfully in virtually every train, airplane and ship.

External and/or internal vacuum wastewater systems give design flexibility; small pipes 25-100mm can go up to 6 metres vertically and 3 km on the flat. Costs are low for installation, maintenance and future modification as the many vents and traps of the gravity system are eliminated. Importantly, water is conserved; a vacuum system uses 1 litre of water per flush. Multiple collection tanks and pumps can be used to separate different types of wastewater. Vacuum transportation is the final component of a re-designed domestic system that can recover all energy and nutrients in the food cycle. There are a few examples of such a complete system in place. A small housing development in Lubeck, Germany installed a completely independent sewage and domestic food waste–treatment systems. (Fig.10)

Fig 10.  A chart illustrating the flows of energy and nutrients in a small housing development in Lubeck, Germany, which has installed completely independent waste-treatment systems for sewage and domestic food.

Cellulosic waste or woody wastes, of which there is a vast amount left over from food production, forestry and construction, are not suited to anaerobic digestion, which deals better with green or wet bio-wastes. Burning cellulosic waste recovers energy but leaves little of the original nutrients or carbon to return to the soil. Far better is pyrolysis, the process of heating without oxygen to release the volatile gases of the cellulosic material. Pyrolysis is a new name for the old-fashioned process of charcoal making. If applied in a certain way, it produces a ‘biochar’ that locks up the CO2 of the biomass and returns it to the soil where it stimulates and supports the soil organisms. (Others will describe the benefits of biochar in this volume). (Fig.11)

Pyrolysis is not yet a commercial reality in Ireland, nor has it been convincingly established elsewhere. Its promise is enormous, as it can deliver renewable electricity to the grid, considerable heat for a local factory, bio-oil for heating and transportation, and biochar for commercial agriculture and possible future carbon-credit sales. High rate of investment return can only be delivered if all of the co-products are realised i.e. when production of biochar is in the right location and is integrated into other production and consumption activities. In other words, proximity is a sine qua non for biochar to reach its potential as a climate-saving technology.


Energy was an already an important element of proximity 1.0 in the past. Before oil was exploited for energy, settlements were often established near energy sources. An example can be found in Co. Offaly on the foothills of the Slieve Bloom mountains, where a necklace of villages grew up around watermills on the Silver River. In the 1930s, the source of energy changed to exploitation of the bogs for turf. As the source of energy shifted, so too did the economic and political power. Ballyboy ceased to be the chief county town, and little-known Frankfort, renamed Kilcormac, rapidly developed with new worker housing because of its proximity to the turf works. As the bogs lost their importance as the importation of oil and gas rose, Kilcormac also fell into sleepy decline.

Figure 12: The watermills in Ballyboy and Cadamstown villages were once the heart of the community.

In 2005, EOS Future Design participated in a research project entitled ENLIVEN to prepare for a European funding submission exploring how renewable energy resources could once again be used as an engine for village development. We identified hydro, wind, forestry bio-energy and agricultural bio-waste resources available to the villages of Cadamstown, Ballyboy and Kilcormac. It was a first attempt to outline a new vision for rural communities using renewable energy sources located close by. In the past, rural development policies have sought to preserve threatened ways of life or to revive those that had already passed into history. The ENLIVEN study looked to the future instead of the past and actively prepared for largely predictable events. But the report did not overlook local place and local culture; the plans were rooted in specific natural and social contexts. The study easily identified a potential 43% reduction in fossil-fuel use and CO2 emissions in a rural community of 1,200.

We proposed a new plan-led process of village development that would shift from incremental one-off house development in the rural village hinterland, or the sudden huge developer-led anonymous housing estate at the edge of the village, to a more controlled process. The following is a slightly amended version of this process that takes into account political fiscal changes.

The first stage of the ENLIVEN development process covers planning and design.

  • The community of a village in decline or under potentially damaging development pressure would request a framework plan for the village.
  • A revolving fund would be available to manage the upfront costs of the plan and the infrastructure development that follows.
  • The local authority would contract a team of consultants directly or approve a set chosen by the community and would partner the team in the preparation of the plan.
  • A ‘Charrette’ in which all stakeholders participate to plan their village is facilitated by the planning and design team on location over a number of days.
  • Agreement would be sought as much as possible with landowners about what land should be developed within a five-year time horizon guided by sustainability objectives and community needs.
  • These identified lands would be prioritized for new infrastructure and investment
  • New access roads, parks, water, drainage and waste-treatment and energy-generation facilities and amenities and services required would be located, sized and costed.
  • A three-dimensional plan would show the new roads, squares, parks and also the heights, shapes and uses of the buildings that enclosed them.
  • A design guide would be developed which reflected the local building vernacular and the distinctive qualities of the local settlements and set energy and other ecological standards for the construction.

Implementation would be carried out in two stages: a) Infrastructure, services and public spaces and amenities; and b) building construction on sites.

  • The local authority would use its powers to clear title and/or acquire key land where the community and authority as a whole thought it was necessary for the benefit of the wider community.
  • The local authority or, in partnership with a private or not-for-profit infrastructure developer/s–under building licences from the land–owners, would carry out the infrastructure works and agreed amenities and service buildings. Equity partnerships are the optimal vehicle to align everybody’s interests.
  • Landowners would build on the fully developed sites or sell them to self-builders or in small groups to local builders in accordance with the design guide.
  • The community, or at least the landowners in the community, would have control of the sale price and to whom it sold the houses and sites.
  • In addition a portion of the land (equivalent to Part V of 2000 Act) should be given over to a Community Land Trust in the form of an Equity Partnership, which would provide housing for rent or purchase at a lower-than-market cost as it would not include the land element. This would ensure that locals were never priced out of their own area despite the high values created and that the key skilled people (mechanics, teachers or nurses, for instance) that the community needs for its development and maintenance would be attracted into the area.

The Proximity Principle tells us that the land values created by the development of infrastructure, services and amenities can be recouped by the upswing in land values of served and adjacent property. Section 49 of the 2000 Act provides for the recouping of investment by a local authority directly relating to a served site i.e. roads and pavements. The value added by the combined renewable-energy and waste-processing plant will attach to all land in the vicinity including developed properties. A new Site Value Tax (SVT) promised in the programme for government will provide the means to collect that value created. The SVT will also ensure that the developed sites are sold quickly and the revolving fund recouped to be made available to other communities.

Over a year, ENLIVEN showed that it could deliver 100% net renewable-energy services through electricity and hot water mini-grids in the participating villages. However, at any one time, the villages could be exporting or importing non-renewable energy from the national grid. The balancing of supply by suitable demand uses will be pursued through the planning process (the Framework Plan) and by the active participation of local development agencies to identify energy-hungry, job-creating uses.

It may be advantageous to involve an ESCo (an Energy Services Company) to undertake the ‘top up and spill’ technical and pricing interface with Eirgrid and the billing of customers. Again an Equity Partnership structure would include consumers, investors and energy producers in a sustainable relationship. Activities that are flexible enough to use off-peak electricity generated by the wind turbine, such as refrigeration or kilns, will be attracted by very cheap rates to the participating rural villages.

A local ESCo could make the extra costs of peak electricity use visible to users so that they have the option of postponing discretionary electricity use, such as the drier or dishwasher, until the energy demand and price are lower. Metering and billing systems should be intelligent so that using electricity or hot water at the high demand times will cost more than the off-peak times.

We estimated that the energy savings arising from intelligent design, construction and retrofit could eventually reach 6,282,000kWh as a direct result of the ENLIVEN project for the three villages which amount to 3,700 tonnes of CO2 saved every year. At 22.47 per tonne, this represents a saving for tax-payers of 83,228 per annum if emission rights have to be bought by the government.

Because of the insolvency of Irish banks and the pressure on public funds due to the crash in fiscal receipts, the more pessimistic observer might argue that the funding is simply not available for this kind of ambitious energy and waste infrastructure. But the Proximity Principle tells us otherwise.

Funding has been allocated under two different category streams for rural development. The first is the Rural Development Programme which was set up to tackle the quality of life in rural areas and to promote diversification within the rural economy. 50% funding for private projects up to 150,000 is available which not-for-profit community groups will be eligible for a higher rate of aid at 75%. Administration and training is funded up to a generous 100%. 30,000 per project is offered for analysis and project development.

This funding is appropriate for the Plan and Design Stages of the ENLIVEN process and would be available for reuse by further communities when recouped under SVT and Section 49 of the 2000 Planning Act.

The second major source of funding is that allocated under the Water Services investment in the NDP, a total 4.7 billion. 89 million investment was planned in the 2009 budget although final figures were reduced. To illustrate, small Wastewater Plants for six Villages in North and South Tipperary cost 10.80m (1.9 million each on average).

1.9 million will easily cover the costs of a combined agricultural and human waste-processing anaerobic digester with combined heat and power energy generation and nutrient recovery to ensure the agricultural input quality for a rural village. The private sector will be willing partners in such a facility, thereby making these funds work for other communities.

Opportunities for Proximity 2.0 in Ireland

  • The Environmental Pillar is now recognised as a ‘Social Partner’ at national level. Social Partners have to be included in ‘partnership structures’ at every level and every Leader Company (32) has to have an environmental representative, as do City and County Development Boards. So for the first time, environmental activists have a voice at local government level.
  • Many of these representatives have taken their places on these boards. I am on the County Westmeath Special Policy Committee for Environment and Water Services and I have put an item on the agenda to reconsider Westmeath’s existing specification and procurement of wastewater-treatment systems. Others will follow.
  • Site Value Taxation is now contained in the Programme for Government thanks to policy-development work by the environmental network Smart Taxes, which is led by Feasta. As the time of going to press, the network had been invited to discuss implementation issues with the Department of Finance. Those who follow Irish governance will know that this is a big advance.

Obstacles to Proximity 2.0 in Ireland:

  • The myth of an historic model for single houses and the under-valuation of the rural village still persist today as remote “one-off” houses are still being granted planning permission and built despite the downturn, even by self-proclaimed environmentalists.
  • There’s no easy way to capture the land value created by new energy and waste facilities to help fund investment until SVT is implemented and it has many enemies. Worse, even SVT political friends underestimate its vital underpinning of the economics of sustainability as it can be a difficult concept to explain.
  • Outdated drainage and wastewater building regulations and planning practices that stifle any innovation. On the positive side, these are under revision not least because of budget constraints.
  • Outdated electricity grid and cost/reward structure. The new ‘Refit Tariff’ for bio-energy is an advance, but more is needed especially commitment to the distributed and embedded energy model by government and a Cap /Tax and Share of carbon allowances.
  • The Limited Liability Partnerships legal structure needed for Equity Partnerships is not yet available under Irish Company Law.
  • Specialist, siloed scientific, technical and professional education and practice is a persistent obstacle to proximity 2.0 and one that is difficult to solve in the short term but keeping our young qualified graduates from emigrating would be a good start.


As I have shown, there are numerous tangible benefits that come from applying the Proximity Principle 2.0, not least greater energy and food security in the long term, and in the short term — rural jobs in waste treatment and energy generation. The kind of synergy that comes from placing different services and uses in proximity to each other in rural settlements is a matchless opportunity to rapidly build circuit breakers at the mid or community scale to halt complete systemic collapse. Proximity Principle 2.0 really is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, always allowing that the different parts are close enough to interact. There’s no sleight-of-hand involved; it is simply good integrated design using best-practice technical knowledge.

The payment for these manifold benefits is the abandonment of a desire for isolated living in the countryside — a settlement pattern that was never native to us anyway.


  1. The Natural Step is a non-profit organisation founded in Sweden in1989 by a scientist,
    Karl-Henrik Robèrt, which promotes a systematic, principle-based definition of sustainability. See
  2. Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, Little Brown and Company, 1999.