Three Cork urbanists tell Catherine Shanahan how the city can put its best square foot forward.
WITH the pace of change in Cork moving at a dizzying clip, Mary McCarthy, Director of the Crawford Art Gallery, hopes the city will seize the day.
“I do think we are in a kind of once-in-a-generation moment,” she says.
“In a way I am minded of how a number of things happened very quickly in the city 200 years ago, like the setting up of the Chamber of Commerce and the setting up of this institution as an institute of learning (Cork School of Art) and the arrival in Cork of the Canova Casts. [plaster sculptures by renowned Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, on permanent display in the Crawford]
“There was this kind of international moment, a sense of Cork becoming somewhere really significant and I suppose I reference that to show that cities have periods of expedited growth every now and then, when certain things align economically and globally.
“Certainly there’s a lot happening in Cork right now and I think we are all delighted to see that because I think we all feel we missed the upside of the last sort of boom period.”
Karl Shane Diskin, architect and urban designer, also rewinds 200 years to project a vision of Cork city for 2220.
He takes his inspiration from Ildefons Cerdà, the progressive Catalan urban planner and civil engineer who master planned the revolutionary 19th century expansion of Barcelona on a chamfered grid.
“If you rewind the clock 200 years, Barcelona had a lot in common with Cork. It was a walled, medieval port city, with a population of 187,000, similar to what we have in Cork today.
Karl says that to put shape on the expansion, Cerdà’s plan consisted of a grid of streets that would unite the old city with seven peripheral villages, which later became integral urban neighbourhoods, bringing them into the fold.
Having an overarching masterplan meant that over the next century, developers were “freed to fill it in, like a paint by numbers; they had their predefined plots, heights, the general dimensions, and a clear understanding of how their development would integrate into the emerging wider urban context”.
“Many parameters were preordained which de-risked development, so they could go ahead and build with surety,” Karl says.
“We don’t tend to do that in this country. We don’t tend to proactively masterplan areas.
“It’s very much waiting for the developer to come forward with a proposal and then say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, rather than setting out in advance what we want to see.
“I think it would be very, very useful, in the wake of the recent city boundary expansion, to map out what the future city ought look like” Karl says.
Dubliner Shane Clarke finds himself immersed in the history of Cork city as CEO of Nano Nagle Place and he too has a passion for cities and urban design.
He had a great job in London and lived in Peckham “a brilliant area” but both himself and his wife, a Clare woman, had a hankering for home.
“We decided not to do the usual thing and move to Dublin. We decided to explore Cork. We came over for a weekend and I was quite enchanted by the place,” he says.
His original plan was to set up an urban design consultancy. He has a Masters in Urban Design and worked in urban regeneration in London.
As deputy chief executive at the Team London Bridge Business Improvement District Company, he led on the delivery of public realm projects, planning, sustainability, environmental management.
He was enticed to take the job as CEO at Nano Nagle Place because it was an opportunity to run a company.
Having lived in London for more than 20 years, what does a city need to make it an attractive place for people to live and work?
“I think the thing I loved about all the neighbourhoods I lived in in London, the last being Peckham, is that there is a lovely mix of residential, cultural, green spaces, businesses and industry and that they all come together and that they are not monocultural.
“I fear where we have ended up in Cork city is that the centre of town is almost envisaged as a shopping centre that happens to have an historic sort of street pattern.
“I know retail is absolutely fundamental to the working of a town or city centre, but it needs residential, it needs services it needs green spaces, play grounds, leisure activities. And it needs workers.
“I know that’s the ambition for the city centre - if you can bring in the residential community, if you can bring in a significant population and if you can have environmental and leisure services, then the city centre of Cork has got amazing potential,” Shane says.
If Cork is to reach its potential as a “city of scale”; with a vastly increased population over the next 200 years (as per the National Development Plan targets), Karl says we need to recognize “that everything between the River Lee and Douglas River ought to be considered ‘central’ and Lough Mahon shore ought become our “ ‘Lower Manhattan’ equivalent”.
“The centre of gravity of the city is moving south and east towards the harbour. We need to accept that what was the city centre, the island, is going to be more peripheral in the future, as the main city shifts down the docklands to Mahon where there is room to grow and fewer planning restrictions.
“If you look at our infrastructure in that context, the tunnel and the South Ring Road already go through what will be the heart of the new city. Therefore I see no need for a North Ring Road” Karl says.
“We need to focus on sustainable transport options instead that work within the existing street networks in the older neighbourhoods, and focus bigger infrastructural items in the places where they will be needed”
Shane is slightly dismayed at Cork’s transport options, especially the cycle lanes.
He walks his kids to Gaelscoil an Ghoirt Álainn in the Tank Field from their home in St Lukes before cycling across the city to work.
“I come down the Middle Glanmire Road to St Lukes and on down Summerhill North and there is no cycle lane anywhere. The traffic is backed up Summerhill so I basically overtake by passing the cars on the wrong side of the road.
“It’s only when I’m almost at the Bus Station that I hit the only decent cycle lane.
“There were 40,000 people working at London Bridge and the number of people driving was just .001%. Yes, there is a congestion charge, but they really invested in the cycling infrastructure and over the years, traffic reduced and the numbers cycling multiplied exponentially,” Shane says.
It’s the city’s neglect of these type of “ground level” matters that bothers Mary.
“I think there’s a lot of good work being done on the helicopter view, the long term planning, but my concern would be more about the ground level maintenance because that is what people experience every day.
“I think absence of maintenance means we don’t trust the authority that’s responsible - whether it’s unblocking manholes, unblocking drains. I bring it down to street level because for me, that’s where it starts.
“If the drains are blocked, and there is street flooding - and we’ve seen a lot of that recently - then I am kind of asking “are we really trusting these people to make big decisions, such as on transport?”.
“Because if we have a low level of trust when it comes to the provision of basic services, I think then we then don’t trust the high-level thinking on transport and infrastructure,” Mary says.
Karl says people have “developed a distrust” in government being able to strategize properly, based on their lived experience.
“For instance the bus and cycle networks are shocking and there’s no other public transport to speak of, so people really have no choice but to take matters into their hands and get a car.
“There’s been total abdication of responsibility to provide a coherent public transport network.”
“We need to see a return to city living, so this perception needs urgently to be reversed” Karl says.
Mary says she is very heartened by development in the docklands, particularly the Horgan’s Quay project by Kent Railway Station.
“I think that’s a very smart project with a number of developers and architects working together, so it’s not just one architectural form.
“I think there are very different building shapes and from what I can see, there is very interesting connectivity between public spaces and the buildings. It’s very integrated urban design planning and the big thing now is the connectivity to the river.”
Her main concern she says is that too many “tall glass towers on corners could create a lot of shadowing and can create kind of wind tunnels”.
“Anyone who’s been to larger cities knows what that’s like eg Manhattan,” she says.
Karl says mid-rise buildings, 6-9 storeys, are the future.
“That’s the kind of scale where you can get the critical density of people to support public transport - enough people to fill the bus at every stop, to sustain local shops and cafes, and generate the taxes enough to fund construction and maintenance of high quality public spaces”
“But at those heights you still have connection to the street. If you live in the top floor, you can still call down to someone and say “here’s the keys”, you can hear the birds singing, sunlight can penetrate down to the street.
“So it’s maximizing the density and efficiency of the way we use space without losing that connection to the outdoors.
“The trouble with very tall buildings is you can become quite alienated way up high, you can have no idea what’s happening at street level.”
Karl is not impressed with docklands development in Dublin.
“We can learn from past mistakes, and I believe to do this, something about the authenticity of Irish urbanism, its humanity and idiosyncrasies, ought be studied, synthesized and invested into our new urban districts, so that they are recognizably of the Irish urban genealogy and represent an evolution of type, rather than something alien and cold.”
Shane agrees. He’s concerned the Cork docklands is “going to be about big developers with big projects “so how does that fit in with cities that we love, including Cork, that are fine grain and full of lots of different things and have a human touch?”
“What big money likes to do is build an enormous big floor plate of offices that goes up 10, 12 storeys, the result being that you don’t get the tight mix you get in city centres and you don’t get the diversity of uses you get in city centres.
“And if you go into lots of docklands you can see all of these enormous buildings, but it’s almost continually the case where you are saying ‘Where are all the people, there’s no-one walking around”.’
Mary says it’s the potential for human interaction that makes cities so attractive. Cork’s “bump-ability” factor is a real draw for her.
“You know this concept where if you come into Cork, you might bump into someone and go for coffee. It’s this unexpected quality. For me that has to be the best thing about living in cities, that there’s a chance factor that you meet somebody or have a surprising moment, because otherwise you could just sit at home and order everything online.
“So it’s the potential for human interaction where cities will win and Cork is fantastically positioned for that.”
“And if you look up, the streetscape is surprisingly beautiful and what we need to do is take care of it more.
“That’s something we are seeing in all of our cities, a lot of bottom-up democracy and people taking control of the streets and getting on with it.
“We do need leadership, but it has to come from everyone, the citizens as well as the city - y’know, pick up your dog poo.
“We need every level to show leadership.”
Visit the Cork on the Rise hub here, where we have been debating and exploring the city’s transformation and future both from a national and international perspective.