There is real value and potential in small towns as future sustainable communities argue Free Market's Tara Kennedy and Laurence Lord
MACROOM was one of four towns to host the architecture exhibition ‘Free Market’ this year, highlighting the character, history, and possible future of small market towns in Ireland.
In late July, the square of the Co Cork town saw a busy few days as we pitched our Free Market stall alongside market traders and installed our exhibition in the Town Hall gallery.
We placed particular emphasis in the exhibition on the marketplaces at the heart of towns, and these public spaces became the setting for us to meet people and to start conversations on our tour to learn from towns.
Small towns have huge future potential as sustainable places to live, and Co Cork has many unique towns ripe for change, but these places have often been overlooked or struggle with decline. The rural town is an important place in Ireland, with a unique identity. One in three people live in a town.
Free Market celebrates the character of these small towns, but critically, also highlights the diminishing quality of public spaces in most towns. Researching a diverse selection of small towns nationally, we have seen recurring issues of vacancy, of underused potential, and of the car taking priority over other considerations.
Today, many market squares are used for car parking and their role as a place for exchange and congregation has declined. While the marketplaces of our towns do not exist in isolation, they are a symptom and a product of the overall health and vitality of towns.
The broader functions of exchange — commercial, social, and cultural, which are central to the everyday workings and identity of towns — have been altered in many ways.
How we shop has changed. But we argue that it is still vital that our towns have beautiful public spaces to host social, political, and cultural exchange, community debate, banter, and incidental interactions.
Free Market was originally exhibited as the Irish national representation at the 2018 international Venice Architecture Biennale.
Presented by a group of six architects, academics, and designers (Jo Anne Butler, Jeffrey Bolhuis, Miriam Delaney, Tara Kennedy, Laurence Lord, and Orla Murphy) the pavilion won widespread acclaim for its presentation of the identity of Irish rural towns to an international design audience.
The Venice Biennale is the largest global forum for architecture exhibition and debate. With 63 national pavilions and 71 invited participants in 2018, it attracted 280,000 visitors over six months from May to November.
In 2018, this was also a particularly significant occasion for Irish architecture, with the overall Biennale curated for the first time by Irish architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara.
We responded to their theme of Freespace, which described “a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda, focusing on the quality of space itself”.
Speaking to an international audience in Venice, we were struck by the response to the unique character of Irish towns.
Although similar decline, brought on by changes in global economics and lifestyles, can be seen in towns across the world, Irish towns retain specific colour, character, and vitality that has been lost in many other places. This is something we must celebrate and act upon. The Irish tour was a manifestation of this celebration, bringing the exhibition directly to town squares, coinciding with festivals and market days and using the temporary structure, or market stall, as something to gather around and engage people in conversation about their towns.
To encourage what poet Pat Boran described as “encounters over counters”, we offered a free copy of our newspaper, Free Market News, using this exchange as a way to start conversation.
Across the summer, Free Market travelled to four of the towns that formed the heart of the research, organising public events, collecting stories, sharing ideas, and learning from towns.
Macroom was the second stop on this tour, that also had successful visits to Castleblayney, Mountmellick, and Kilmallock. The exhibition was bespoke for each town, and included public events alongside the exhibition.
The arrival of Free Market in Macroom was announced by a temporary structure in the square, designed to evoke the unique qualities of the Irish town, and enable passersby to stop and talk.
The pavilion disrupted the usual market layout to test a layout without cars, where people could sit and chat and visit the stalls.
At the launch event in the Town Hall gallery in Macroom, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed correctly identified the issues directly affecting the town. The centre is dominated by traffic, Macroom operates as a thoroughfare, leaving little space for people.
We heard how much people valued the market, the local community spirit and the beautiful Castle Demesne.
We also heard how traffic and its associated noise and pollution deters people from using the town, living in it, walking, or cycling.
Subsequent to our visit, Mr Creed recently announced Government approval to Cork County Council to award the contract for the construction of the N22 Macroom-Baile Mhúirne bypass.
This is a significant moment of potential change. It is important that the people of Macroom are a part of this conversation to collectively reimagine what the town could be.
The traffic chokes up the town, but there is also a fear that the bypass will upset business. Participatory processes are vital in establishing positive shared vision for the future of towns.
We would also strongly advocate for the expertise of a dedicated town architect in guiding this process — unfortunately a role not established for most towns.
AS Free Market travelled, we responded to the specific character of and issues facing the towns we visited. In Co Cork, we were interested in the strong tradition of food production and market trading, and recent debate on the possible introduction of regulation by Cork County Council through countywide casual trading bylaws.
Toby Simmonds of Toonsbridge, who was invited to launch the exhibition in Macroom, spoke about the importance of markets as a support structure for quality cutting-edge food culture and trends. You can flourish and experiment with something that wouldn’t work seven days a week. Markets happen in the heart of towns, we must keep it this way.
And as Martin Hobbs of Bantry Market Traders’ Association described, the benefits of holding market events are not solely economic; they also bolster the social economy and local community.
In the exhibition, we proposed that casual trading bylaws could offer an opportunity for better public spaces based on closer links between the local authority and market users of squares.
Also unique to the Cork tour stop was a presentation and discussion of student architectural proposals, enthusiastically debated with a wide range of people from the community.
The Free Market team is heavily involved in teaching, and there was a sense of the value of academic knowledge, sharing and building on the work of many others. At the start of the project, three of the team, Tara Kennedy, Jeffrey Bolhuis, and Laurence Lord, were teaching in the Cork Centre for Architectural Education.
This presented an opportunity for Cork towns and consequently the students of the Country Living Unit at CCAE, which ran from 2016 to 2019 led by Laurence Lord and Jeffrey Bolhuis of AP+E, developed research and proposals for Cork market towns Macroom and Bantry.
This work was subsequently presented as part of Free Market events. The students observed and proposed projects that sparked deep conversations and engagement in both towns.
Proposals included town centre housing, building on research which found that people who lived in the centre of towns had a considerably higher likelihood of involvement in voluntary and community organisations.
In Bantry, as part of a collaboration with Cork County Council, Free Market worked with the West Cork Literary Festival and Cork County Library services to host a public talk on the issues facing Bantry. The town has an oversized, underused public square in the space between the town centre and the water, acting more as a barrier to the water than a connector. The space works on market days, but they are not every day.
A number of key traders have pulled out of the town centre and development on the periphery has left increased levels of retail and residential vacancy in the heart of the town, plus significant car dependency.
Proposals included revitalising the town’s connection to the sea by allowing the water to come back in closer to the town centre, with resultant changes to the public square.
As in Macroom, student proposals were exhibited locally and provided an opportunity to engage with people, discuss the issues facing the town, and open the discourse to a much wider platform.
The Free Market project is fundamentally optimistic; we believe that there is real value and potential in our small towns, and that they are resilient places that can provide sustainable communities in the future.
Innovative adaptation of towns can ensure that their future is one that supports a growing population, in a low-carbon, compact urban model, with health and well-being at its core.
Architect and urbanist Patrick Shaffrey, launching the Free Market tour, said: “In the context of climate change, walkable and compact small towns have so much to offer us...it’s a no-brainer.”
For these changes to come to fruition, there must be interconnected changes in policy, behaviour, and in how design happens. Good design should be the connecting tissue of all built projects and public realm works in small towns, and towns need designers at the heart of decision-making. Government policy, local authorities, and Government agencies must co-ordinate to make this vision possible.
Towns urgently need to be valued as vital places to live into the future.
Tara Kennedy is co-commissioner/ curator of Free Market, practises architecture with John McLaughlin Architects and is a lecturer in architecture at Cork Centre for Architectural Education, as well as initiating socially driven design and research projects.
Laurence Lord is co-commissioner/ curator of Free Market, an architect at AP+E, and architecture lecturer at the School of Natural and Built Environment, Queen’s University, Belfast.