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The time has come to give Cork’s quays some of the 'oh là là' flair of Bordeaux

Cork City Council is lining up a new Development Plan. After a family holiday in France, Catherine Shanahan says we could learn much from Bordeaux.

 Selective focus on Bordeaux's busy left bank - it's always full of people in a hottest summer day
Selective focus on Bordeaux's busy left bank - it's always full of people in a hottest summer day

ONCE upon a time, not so long ago, the Bordelaise had no real view of the magnificent waterway that cut through their magnificent city.

The port physically blocked their vista and abandoned, derelict, warehouses ran riot along the quays.

Traffic snarl-ups threatened to choke the city’s economic life, not to mention the welfare of residents exposed to constant, intense exhaust fumes.

Over the decades, those same polluting fumes had sullied Bordeaux’s beautiful 18th century limestone facade.

Bordeaux had let itself go and no-one seemed to know how to rouse La Belle Endormie (the Sleeping Beauty) from its protracted slumber.

This, roughly, was the potted history of a city’s ignominious past, shared with us by our bi-lingual tour guide as we travelled through Bordeaux’s historic centre in our electric Tuk-Tuk a couple of summers back on a family holiday.

What struck me at the time was that while Cork does not have the grand boulevards or neoclassical buildings of this fabulous French city, we do share certain physical characteristics: Both are port cities, in the southwest of their respective countries, with a rich agricultural hinterland. Both see themselves as counterbalances to their capital city. Both value their city’s rich cultural life and have a robust regard for their own identity.

And residents of both like to enjoy themselves, with particular value attached to outdoor public events which not only entertain, but create the opportunity for people to engage, while at the same time fostering a sense of community and contributing to the local economy In Bordeaux, a huge amount of this entertainment and engagement takes place along the waterfront because the manner in which the city was reinvigorated recognised the importance of reconnecting its citizens with the Garonne River, a source of much of the city’s prosperity.

During our visit, we regularly embarked on the two bridges circuit loop - miles of promenade right along the river linking Pont to Pierre with Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas - either on foot or by bicycle. Our route was dotted with trendy bars and cafés, boutiques, ice-cream sellers, hip hop artists, roller-bladers, musicians, street theatre, children’s parks - really just one big constant street carnival.

The Shanahan kids having some fun
The Shanahan kids having some fun

The iconic centrepiece along the quays, installed in 2007, is the water mirror, or Miroir d’Eau, a giant reflecting pool that captures the majestic Palais de la Bourse, but also doubles up as a paddling pool for the throngs of tourists who now flock to the city, The space afforded to the Bordelaise to actually enjoy and reconnect with their quays was helped by moving the old port downriver.

The old docklands were transformed, over time, into the gentrified district of Chartrons with loft apartments, boutiques, and museums, not least the wine museum, La Cité du Vin, an extraordinary piece of contemporary architecture designed to resemble a wine decanter (“A clown’s shoe” was my kids’ verdict).

Space was also created by introducing trams. Prior to their introduction, cars clogged up the historic city centre, making it less attractive and less viable to sit out in gorgeous city squares.

Key streets were pedestrianised, reinvigorating street life and allowing residents and tourists room to manoeuvre and enjoy the city’s many monuments and dining experiences, largely outdoors.

Situated in Bordeaux, La Cité du Vin is a unique venue for culture and recreation where wine comes to life through an immersive, sensorial approach, all set within an evocative architectural design. La Cité du Vin gives a different view of wine, across the world, across the ages, across all cultures and all civilisations.
Situated in Bordeaux, La Cité du Vin is a unique venue for culture and recreation where wine comes to life through an immersive, sensorial approach, all set within an evocative architectural design. La Cité du Vin gives a different view of wine, across the world, across the ages, across all cultures and all civilisations.

One politician, Alain Juppé, is largely credited with Bordeaux’s transformation. First elected as city mayor in 1995 (he was also French prime minister from 1995 - ‘97), his team started planning a tram system in 1996, after a metro was deemed too expensive. Three tramlines were built simultaneously, limiting the chaos to two years. Today, the system is seamless (I can vouch for this) and largely noiseless, and as trams have no exhaust fumes, the environmental impact is negligible.

Juppé was also instrumental in ridding magnificent historic buildings of layers of grime by introducing generous grants to individual property owners in key locations to clean up their stock. When we visited, the majority of city centre buildings were in pristine condition.

All of the initiatives kickstarted by Juppé took careful planning, investment and flair, but Bordeaux has reaped rich dividends. In 2007, half of the city was UNESCO-listed, making it the largest urban world heritage site. Today, it’s a vibrant, sophisticated destination making maximum use of its lifeline riverbank. It made me think - why can’t we do the same?

Maybe we can. Our own city officials are eager to formally start the new City Development Plan process (the current plan expires next year), but Covid-19 has slowed it down. It should have got underway in April but the restrictions on movement make public consultation difficult. A spokesperson for Cork City Council said the government has deferred planning timeframes by six weeks, pushing it out to June.

The process will include an eight week public consultation period, during which anyone can let the council know what they believe the key issues to be considered in the plan are.

Bordeaux's Palais de la Bourse and the Miroir d'Eau
Bordeaux's Palais de la Bourse and the Miroir d'Eau

Happily, the spokesperson said best practice in other cities - based on past visits and interactions by City Council officials and members - as well as “research into practice in other cities”, will also inform the new development plan.

It would be a pity not to consider Bordeaux. In 2010, when the Academy of Urbanism was considering it for the title of European City of the Year, it said Bordeaux was “an exemplar case study of how to achieve the transformation of a city with an historic core suffering from depopulation and the dominant effect of the car”.

(Sound familiar?) It also said use of the tram system as a tool for city regeneration was “outstanding” (Light rail through the city anyone?).

And it gave particular mention to Bordeaux’s treatment of its waterfront and public realm..

More fun for the Shanahan clan
More fun for the Shanahan clan

“Much can be learnt from Bordeaux,” the Academy said.

Much could also be learned from Denmark’s second city.

Writing in these pages last year, Stephen D Willacy, chief architect for the city council in Aarhus, compared it with Cork, and found many similarities, not least its harbour and river frontage.

Aarhus was transformed under a masterplan, but prior to that, like Bordeaux, its waterfront had become a wall of warehouses and grain silos, “cutting off the visual and physical contact” between the city’s historic centre and the harbour. Aarhus devised a plan to successfully reconnect the two.

Before and After shots of Bordeau's Quays.  Photo: @despod
Before and After shots of Bordeau's Quays. Photo: @despod

Others interviewed by this newspaper have made suggestions for Cork city’s future development. Architect and urban planner Karl Shane Diskin suggested recently that we should draw 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.

As Mr Diskin pointed out; “ 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”.

There are plenty exemplars to draw on when compiling our own new city development plan.

There’s already much positive momentum (new developments on the quays, and transformation of city spaces such as Nano Nagle Place). We can build on those changes.

All we need now is courage, imagination and flair. And shedloads of investment.

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