A risorgimento on Leeside can come to the aid of the nation, suggests Allan Prosser
Tomorrow morning’s debate at the landmark Cork University Business School marks an important contribution to the most significant challenge facing the people of Cork City and those who work to make it a successful, happy, and secure location for the future.
The questions are these: What is our natural habitat and built environment to be for the next 100 years? How will we design it to ensure that we are mentally and physically healthy and that we, and those who follow us, can enjoy sustainable and viable lives in an increasingly complex world? How do we find our futures without losing our past?
Cork is a city with some unrivalled advantages including quaysides and undeveloped waterfront. And the manner in which water influences the choices available to planners, developers, and investors is a defining characteristic from which there is no escape.
Its ancient name Corcaigh means marsh and twice in the past decade, with the river flood of 2009 and the tidal flood of 2014, nearly €150m damage was caused to businesses and properties and the livelihoods of people.
In the previous century there were at least nine other serious examples of burst banks. The most recent events led directly to the controversial Office of Public Works proposals for flood walls and defences along the Lee and provided the touchstone for igniting new interest in the urban landscape of the future.
The dispute is not resolved. Choices have to be made as the the mood is swinging to general recognition of the onset of global warming. While the headlines go to the superglue and slogans and symbols of Extinction Rebellion and the youthful fervour of the children’s protest on climate change, there are more forces at work.
Just last week Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, warned financiers that companies which don’t take climate change seriously will eventually cease to exist. With each new David Attenborough series the topic moves one more increment towards the top of the agenda, and he receives another invitation to address the world’s trans-national financial institutions.
But can the desire and need for growth be compatible with environmental priorities or is capitalism inventive enough to find the solutions that will square the circle?
“You don’t listen to the science because you are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before,” the leading Scandinavian environmentalist Greta Thunberg, 16, told British parliamentarians this week.
If it is against a backdrop of rising waters that Cork is gathering its thoughts for the future then it must also contemplate aggressive predictions for population increases and an accompanying expectation of modern housing. Transport and infrastructure and the support of health and welfare services and high-quality academic institutions producing meaningful intellectual capital join an ever-lengthening shopping list.
A divisive facet of the city council plans has been the partial car ban on St Patrick’s Street, the principal shopping thoroughfare for more than a century but now under pressure from surrounding centres with free car parking and online retailers. The embargo either goes too far or does not go far enough depending on which side you hear. But if the city becomes less attractive to shoppers with insufficient incentive to visit, then it must be sustained by something else.
And that something else is residents who live so centrally that they have no need for a car. For those of us who already have city centre addresses (declaration of interest here) the case is overwhelming. Look upwards and you will see hundreds of empty properties above shops and elsewhere; many architecturally interesting and distinctive just requiring some commitment and TLC and a housing policy which encourages involvement and imagination.
Many of the citizens of Cork have migrated to leafier suburbs and commuter villages, a phenomenon that used to be known as the doughnut effect in the United States. While money can buy them more real estate the fact is that there is a price to be paid in fuel charges and travel time. And parking.
Meanwhile, behind them is an opportunity to rediscover the pleasures of being among neighbours with clubs, restaurants, pubs, and, yes, thriving shops because the resident population would be large enough to support them. No more would the question be asked: “Does anyone still live in the city?”
As the city becomes more populous there may even be a chance of the whining alarms which are a characteristic part of the soundscape being responded to rapidly rather than many sleep-disturbed hours after they have been set off.
In any country, unless it is one which spans a continent, such as the United States, or China or Russia or Australia, there is a risk that the capital will dominate with harmful and polarising effects for the economy, for equality of opportunity, and ultimately for consensus and the body politic.
The destructive impact of over-centralisation can be seen most visibly and contemporaneously in the soon-to-be disUnited Kingdom where the strongly-held belief that prosperous London had lost touch with, and sympathy for, other regions and, indeed, regarded them as outliers had a direct impact on the distribution of the Brexit vote. Those who do not share the benefits and good luck of others are eventually apt to react negatively.
For that reason it is in the Republic’s interest to encourage and promote strong centres of excellence outside the hinterland of Dublin and greater Dublin.
We recently wrote in the Irish Examiner leader column that the dominance of Dublin in the economic life of the country was in danger of becoming toxic with the highest disposable income (despite its place at the apex of national house prices); with something over 40% of the population in its extended footprint.
Currently, we argued, that disconnect did not exist and that Cork offered one of the major chances to redress the imbalance before it became out of control. This would require improved motorway connections in the south-west and advances in flight access.
Elsewhere in this supplement Cork Airport argues eloquently for its growth strategy in terms of passenger performance and aviation destinations. But Central Statistics Office figures from 2018 showed that while the nation’s five main airports accounted for more or less the totality of passengers nearly 87% of them passed through Dublin.
While it is unrealistic to expect regional airports to have passenger numbers comparable to the country’s main hub it is surprising that neither Cork nor Shannon can reach 10% of Dublin’s numbers. The combined population of these two catchments and the hourly convoy of buses taking customers from Munster directly to Dublin Airport suggest that something is not quite right in the way this arm of transport is serving the nation and that it should be reviewed as part of a meaningful development plan.
While today’s publication and debate is necessarily focused on Cork City it is risible to expect that all solutions can be found within its boundaries. For that reason we hope to arrange future coverage and events over this year which will stimulate and encourage thinking and planning throughout Co Cork and the rest of Munster, locations which share similar tests and opportunities and which will need each other’s support and assistance and partnership to resolve them. A journey has to start somewhere and Leeside is as good a place to begin as any.
One of the best-loved paintings in the Crawford Art Gallery is John Butts’ View of Cork from Audley Place, painted circa 1750 and presenting an Arcadian panorama of the river and across to St Anne’s Church Tower in Shandon. It is a construct; its vista is a combination of more than one view.
Cork has changed dramatically within the last 20 years. It is more cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic, and gender-diverse than at the beginning of this century. And it will inevitably become more so.
But at the same time it is the Cork of legend that many of us cherish. It is what the French philosopher Bachelard described as “felicitous” or “eulogised” space “...that may be grasped, that may be defended against adverse forces”.
The View of Cork from Audley Place is from the perspective of the northside where the cadences of Runt and Pig in the playwright Enda Walsh’s 1996 work Disco Pigs can still be heard. And arts and entertainment heritage is another part of Cork’s glue. Its output per capita is as impressive as anywhere in Ireland.
Cork increasingly feels like a European municipality and can, with the appropriate developments, attract the best that Europe can bring. All its stakeholders must design and deliver what the Italians once described as a risorgimento, a revival with a unified vision.
It will not be easy. But it can and should be done. The Irish Examiner will attempt to help with fair and accurate reporting and continuous assessment of progress. Watch this space.
Allan Prosser, Editor, Irish Examiner
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