Towns and villages used to be self-contained places, each with a unique identity, and most likely home to a post office and garda station, shops, a church, a school, doctor and perhaps a park or town square.
Not any more. Today, our homes are increasingly located in the Dublin hinterland, often without access to basic services and merely used as place to eat and sleep before getting behind the wheel and commuting to work in the capital.
The message from the 'Ireland 2040, Our Plan' document is clear - if we don't adopt a radically different approach to planning our communities, we will get more of the same. More congestion and commuting. More people leaving the regions. More social isolation among the elderly. More pressure on housing and basic services in all parts of the country.
The capital is no longer a city, but a city region, spreading its tentacles into 11 counties. And while it has largely driven the economic prosperity of recent decades, the State is overly-reliant on its continued success.
It is abundantly clear that there are no winners if we continue with business as usual. Dublin will suffer as citizens grapple with congestion and housing shortages. People living in its hinterlands will endure a poor quality of life. Some towns outside the reach of the city region will continue to see a reduction in services as populations fall. Villages may disappear as the elderly pass on and there's no youth left to replace them. It's a grim picture, but an avoidable one, if the right policies are put in place and citizens begin taking an active role in shaping our shared future.
It's notable that of all our cities, only Galway has experienced population growth in excess of the national average over the last 20 years. It's clear that our regional cities offer significant potential to drive growth and development, but a network of towns is also capable of playing a similar role.
But the population is not increasing in these areas. It's growing in small towns in Dublin's hinterlands, or close to motorways providing a high-quality link to our largest city. The report notes there has been an "emerging concentration of population and economic activity" along the M1 Dublin-Dundalk and M7/M9 Dublin-Portlaoise/Carlow corridors in recent years.
But the rise of these commuter towns is not only resulting in people spending longer in their cars, it also means less time with family and friends. Many of these areas effectively have the sole purpose of feeding Dublin with workers, and are not self-contained places to live and work, with access to services and amenities.
Many of these 'new' towns lack the basics. On the other hand, in the regions there are some which don't have the population to sustain the local health centre or school, meaning they are under-utilised. The State struggles to keep pace with shifting demand.
The growth of these new towns has led to the loss of agricultural land and green spaces, putting pressure on water resources and environmentally sensitive areas. There are no winners, beyond the landowners and developers who provided the homes.
The 'Ireland 2040' report is published as part of a public consultation which runs until March and is aimed at developing a long-term planning framework to avoid the mistakes of the past. It sets out the challenges, and some questions about the best way forward. It looked at countries with similar populations - Denmark, New Zealand, Scotland and Finland - and examined settlement patterns.
It found there are five Irish cities with populations above 50,000, and 25 towns with populations above 15,000 - in the other countries, there are between 10 and 18 cities above 50,000, and between 15 and 41 towns. In other words, people are clustered into urban areas which makes the cost of providing water, parks, electricity, housing, libraries, schools, health centres and other basics of modern living cheaper.
Nowhere should be left behind, but we have a two-tier Ireland and towns and villages will wither and die unless we act. We cannot afford to allow the spread of one-off homes to continue, nor doom future generations to only offering Dublin as a place of work.
While the regional cities are projected to grow, it will not be at the scale needed to act as a counterpoint to the capital. Employers locate where there are larger pools of labour, so unless we consolidate and grow the regions, the rot will continue.
There are solutions. Our cities, particularly Dublin, remain low-rise. While core parts can and should be protected, there cannot be a blanket ban. We must build up to make best use of the existing infrastructure we have.
We have advantages in agriculture and food production, in clean energy, in marine activities include aquaculture, and in tourism. These can be developed in a sustainable manner, providing jobs and opportunities.
Development of the M20 motorway is crucial, to link Cork, Limerick and Galway and create a counterbalance to Dublin. It would provide access to an international airport at Shannon, deep-sea port at Shannon Foynes, at least half a dozen universities and a relatively well-developed public transport system, all of which would be of interest to foreign investors.
The National Planning Framework setting out the road ahead to 2040 will have a statutory basis, and cannot be ignored.
The mistakes of the past have affected the vitality and character of many of our towns and cities. If we continue to rely on Dublin for economic growth, the rest of the country will suffer. The debate is no longer about urban versus rural Ireland. It's now about Dublin versus the rest of the country.