The silence on the streets has made the calls of its people grow louder -- Cork must become a greener, more sustainable and liveable city once the Covid-19 crisis is over.
We cannot go back to the days of engines rattling in gridlocked unison as we trawl to work, we cannot allow our precious green areas to lie tantalisingly beyond our reach, and we cannot allow our youth to become the victims of our generational environmental folly.
That is the overwhelming consensus of environmental and sustainable campaigners in Cork, whose passionate advocacy in recent years has finally reached the ears of City Hall and Central Government.
Changes are coming to the way we live our best lives in Cork, but lip service will not be accepted, campaigners say. Cork must either go all in, or be left behind.
It is unusual, to put it mildly, that advocacy groups can ever come together to form a consensus as to how a cause should progress.
However, the Transport and Mobility Forum, which promotes and encourages sustainable, safe and healthy modes of travel across Cork, has brought together 13 groups all united in a common purpose.
A co-signed letter to the Lord Mayor, County Mayor, Cork City and County chief executives has called for safer streets for walkers and cyclists.
“Facilitating walking and cycling is now emerging not only as best practice worldwide, but also among the most effective steps in protecting public health while restoring economic vitality.
An April 2020 IPSOS survey investigating the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on recreational walking in Ireland, for instance, found an increase in the uptake of recreational walking from 65% pre-lockdown to 78% -of adult population- during lockdown. This increase in walkers highlights the need to adapt our environment to accommodate them safely,” it said.
Measures like this make a massive difference at non-prohibitive costs, according to Dr Maria Kirrane, who is UCC’s sustainability officer.
UCC has become internationally recognised for its sustainability practices, being seen as a shining example for similar institutions worldwide.
Dr Kirrane said: “Paying lip service to sustainable practices will not do. There has to be a commitment to making Cork a walkable city, along with cycling. People are not fools, and high value green space must be that.
“The Lee Walkway has proven to be remarkably successful. We have seen an uplift not just in our staff’s physical health, but also mental health. There has also been a significant reduction of anti-social behaviour. Green space works, and we must strive to have more of it for our citizens across Cork.”
Cork has the feel of an international city, but also has the community feel of a regional city. It should in theory be one of the most walkable cities in Europe.
Much has been done, but much more needs to be done, according to Pedestrian Cork.
Orla Burke of Pedestrian Cork said the city needs “imagination, courage, and playfulness” to become a beacon of a liveable city.
“We need imagination to see our city from other’s perspectives. What is it like to navigate the city if you use a mobility aid or push a buggy? What does my city look like through the eyes of a 5-year-old?
We need courage to implement improvements to the city that will make it a welcoming place for all. We need the spirit of playfulness; to experiment, to give ourselves the space to try and to potentially fail and then get back up and do it all over again. If there is no space to fail, there is no space to grow,” she said.
Cork city has made great strides towards becoming an age-friendly City but the next piece of the puzzle is to make it a child-friendly city, she said.
“It’s the likes of the 3-year-old of today who will live the longest with the decisions we take today. But how are we including the needs of the under-5s and under-12s in plans for the city? I would love to see their voices and ideas heard. My big wish for the city’s children would be that any child that can, would be able walk or cycle to school safely.” More voices in the room are needed, according to Ms Burke.
“We need to give people a way to feed into decision-making processes at an earlier stage. We need a way to crowdsource the user experience of the city. Those of us that navigate the city daily have a wealth of knowledge of what works and what does not. I would love to see City Hall tap into that vast knowledge base and use it for inspiration.” There are a few issues that will need to be addressed as a matter of priority, she said.
“Parking on footpaths, inaccessible “kissing gates” on public walkways, the lack of drop downs on kerbs, narrow, broken footpaths, street clutter, high vehicular speed limits. During the Covid-19 crisis many of these issues have come into sharper focus with the restrictions placed on how far we can travel from home.
“The “feel” of a street is especially important as to whether someone will choose to walk or drive. Reducing the speed limit to 30km/hr wherever motorised traffic and vulnerable road users mix would be a start.
“I would also like to see us experiment with “tactical urbanism” methods, for example trialling temporary planters to narrow roadways and widen paths where speed is a problem. Local communities would need to be included in these processes and that would add to the richness, ownership and sense of place that community input brings,” Ms Burke said.
The runaway success of the likes of Douglas Street’s pop-up parklet last year should be used as inspiration for other parts of the city when it comes to enhancing community, food and trade offerings.
The city’s first purpose-built parklet opened last July, when a car parking space became a public open amenity combining elements of seating, green planting, art and bike parking.
Residents and passers-by could sit, relax, linger and interact, organisers said.
The parklet, which was proposed by the Cork Transport and Mobility Forum in an application to the city council’s €70,000 City Centre Placemaking Fund, was designed by Siobhan Keogh, and built by a team led by Rory Drinan, with the support of Benchspace Cork, Mad about Cork, and the Douglas Street Business Association.
The day-to-day management of the parklet was overseen by Justine Looney and her team at the Cork Flower Studio, with help from other members of the business association.
Among the other successful applications to the placemaking fund were large murals at the entrance to Paul St car park, at the Cornmarket Centre and in Bishop Lucey Park, landscaping to the front of St Peter’s visitor centre, and the La Cocina Pública event, the mobile kitchen housed in a shipping container which brought people together through theatre, food and dining, which was held as part of the Midsummer festival.
Paul McGuirk of Cork City Council said the runaway success of the Douglas Street parklet meant the local authority wanted more applications this year.
“Greening projects, parklets, creative seating, street art, atmospheric lighting and new unique events are just some of the projects which were supported under the City Council’s City Centre Placemaking Fund last year.
"Following on from the very successful pilot last year, Cork City Council once again invited proposals from city centre based community and business groups to this fund and these are currently being evaluated.
According to Cork City Council, the aim is to support projects which will enhance, improve, and enliven people’s experience of Cork city centre, increase footfall and support the local economy.
It is open to business network groups and community groups operating in Cork city centre and it also strives to encourage collaboration in specific streets and neighbourhoods.
Lord Mayor, Cllr John Sheehan, said: “Creating a sense of place is key to a vibrant city centre. As part of its city centre strategy, Cork City Council has been actively encouraging groups at a street or neighbourhood level to work collectively to enhance their area.
"We have several examples of this and we believe this is another tool to help support that process. Things like planting ,murals, interesting events, atmospheric lighting and creative seating make our public spaces more people friendly and attractive.”