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Cork on the Rise: There’s a place for the past in our future

A view of Parnell and Clontarf bridges over the South Channel of the River Lee in January1937, showing Lapp’s Quay and Cork City Hall

As Cork continues to grow, it faces many of the same issues others do. It has many natural advantages, but without community involvement and a focus on sustainability, much of what already makes Cork great could be lost, writes Angela Brady

Everyone who has visited Cork City has their favourite memory or anecdote about a city that generates mythology as a natural resource.

One of my own is the vision of arriving on a warm summer’s evening, walking along the quays at sunset and realising that the silver sparkle on the river was actually the enormous salmon running up stream to spawn.

We approached the bridge close to Shandon to find a crowd of lads leaning dangerously over the parapet, gaffing the beasts directly out of the water and disappearing within seconds into the impenetrable jumble of streets that gather on the hill around St Anne’s famous steeple, thereby shaking any unwanted Garda Síochána attention for what seemed like a chancer’s activity.

The passage of time has doubtless inflated the size and number of the fish and the fieriness of the setting sun, but the sense of the abundance of nature, the picturesque setting of an ancient city where people still live in its heart and the romance of likely lads getting one over on the authorities, are all part-and-parcel of my vision of the spirit of Cork.

Less romantic, but equally pertinent, is the knowledge that salmon no longer run up the Lee in that way due to many factors both local to Cork (for instance, the hydro-electric schemes further up river, the plethora of salmon and mussel farms along the coast) and the wider world, such as impact of climate change and environmental pollution.

In a nutshell, this memory sums up the issues faced by many cities — How do you manage change while conserving and protecting the distinctiveness of character and place?

As we look to the future, the issues facing Cork are the issues facing all cities — growth in a finite world, sustainability, conservation, and quality of life are universal and equally apply. But of course all cities are unique in their own specific set of circumstances and each city must play the cards dealt to it by history, nature, and circumstance.

In this sense, Cork has been blessed with the resources and potential to make it a city that is first amongst equals.

View from the Lisney building on the South Mall, Cork looking towards Lapps Quay and Albert Quay

Firstly, the issues faced by Cork City are not the issues faced by many post-industrial western cities — those of regeneration, renewal, and reinvention. The city is not dead on its feet having lost its commercial raison d’etre — it is a thriving, prosperous city, popular with residents and visitors alike for its legendary hospitality, good food, and welcome.

Cork’s dilemma is summed up by the old adage “the only constant in life is change”. How can a city preserve the authentic qualities for which it is renowned, while adapting to meet the constant pressures and demands of the 21st century?

Careful restoration of significant city structures adds tangible value and separates a city from competing locations. Comparable to the incredible Pont Neuf in Paris, Sir John Bensons’ St Patrick’s Bridge, now repaired and restored, could act as a key anchor to promote regeneration in Cork.

Secondly, the cards dealt to Cork by the fates include a clutch of aces. The natural beauty of Cork’s location with the surrounding hills, the Atlantic seaboard, and the magnificence of Cork Harbour — the second-largest natural harbour in the world after Sydney — are more than the leisure and tourist attractions they undoubtedly are.

They offer an abundance of renewable energy-generating options. This needs to be a focus for Ireland, not just Cork.

The riverine setting of the city amongst the ever-present channels of the River Lee and the still largely contiguous historic fabric create the stage for city life and the setting for the history and traditions of the place, as described by Brian Lalor and John Hegarty, who feel it to the core.

The city still has many historic buildings recognised as being of significant national importance. It also has a wealth of fine working buildings emblematic of Cork and in which the history, traditions and memory of the place are embedded.

The city must value and conserve these buildings and be aware of the full scope of Cork’s history reflected in both monuments and the “mat” of urban fabric that contributes equally to what Cork is.

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#CorkOnTheRise 🇮🇩 Check out the link in our stories to hear what Cork people want to see happen in the city over the years ahead. A series of thought-provoking essays will be published free with the Irish Examiner in a special supplement tomorrow. The supplement will explore the opportunities and challenges facing one of the country’s fastest growing regions and is part of a cross platform initiative in which we hope to start a public conversation on what makes a city great and the decisions and joined up thinking needed to get us there. Please feel free to send us your own contribution on what you feel that future holds, what direction you feel the city is heading and what you want Cork to be in the decades ahead. #cork #corkcity #irishexaminer

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As an example (but let’s hope not a cautionary tale), some of the finest historic warehouses in the city could be under threat at Customs House Quay, not from demolition necessarily, but from emasculation by the preposterous tower that was proposed on the Port of Cork site.

If ever a development represented a wake-up call to the city this is it — a proposal that had nothing to do with Cork, nothing to do with the history, culture and tradition of this place and which shows no understanding of any of the issues championed in these essays — a design from the last century which could irreparably damage the future trajectory of the whole city.

Hopefully this typology won’t rise again! However, good design can change our lives for the better. So if a scheme inspired by 1980s Manhattan (yes, really) does not represent a credible future, then what does?

Let us look to the most sustainable city in Europe. Professor Wulf Daseking, past director of planning in Freiburg, was instrumental in writing the Freiburg Charter. Its ideas are intended as basic principles, designed to provide food for thought and inspiration to act.

He said: “We hope that the Freiburg Charter will be received openly and used to promote efforts to advance sustainable urban planning through the sharing of ideas”.

This alternative vision for an exemplar sustainable city, indeed an achievable and desirable one, is in accord with the Government’s 2050 vision for Ireland.

He added: “New sources of much-needed energy must be found, while cutting consumption at the same time. There is no doubt that urban development and planning play an important pioneering role in solving these issues before us.

The areas of economy, ecology, social affairs and education, as well as cultural diversity, must be addressed through an integrated approach. Involving citizens at an early stage in the planning process and giving consideration to regional integration are basic preconditions for viable urban development.

Cork has the potential to become the standard-bearer for sustainable living to offset our fossil-fuel-hungry country that is still not taking climate change seriously.

There are many role models in Europe whose example could help change the trajectory of a country currently headed in the opposite direction, as Ireland struggles to reduce its CO2 emissions in line with EU targets.

According to the May 2018 GHG projects report, Ireland is set to increase rather than decrease its carbon footprint by 1% and will face heavy fines. Perhaps this money could otherwise have been spent on carbon reducing initiatives by harvesting our natural energy resources and by radically improving insulation standards in our existing stock of buildings and for future developments.

One can advocate for the future development of Cork as a 21st-century sustainable economy based on a full understanding of its particular spirit and character.

This spirit resides in the people as much as in the built fabric, a fact that manifests most clearly through the work of the region’s artists and craftspeople.

Cork, and West Cork in particular, have a living tradition of the arts and crafts revived in the 1960s when many artists moved to Ireland for the quality of life and inspirational landscape.

These artistic skills are in abundance, but they need more national recognition and financial support.

Cork has the Sculpture Factory, but more similar arts centres are needed, as greenwood chair maker Alison Ospina points out. She has been trying to get a Skibbereen Craft Centre funded for over 10 years and it is still needed — yet she puts together annual shows with over 40 creative artists under the banner of West Cork Creates.

A view of St Patrick’s Street from the newly renovated bridge St Patrick’s Bridge

Indeed, this issue of funding and government support, both central and local, can be seen as key to any plan for future growth and development.

However, too many initiatives many have foundered due to the lack of support or vision from Government departments.

Compare that sorry tale with the positive story of Aarhus in Denmark, a city with many similarities and shares much common ground with Cork, in Professor Stephen Willacy’s inspiring contribution in this publication.

So often shortsightedness and perceived competition, with the next town or city, clouds the vision for what a city could achieve or deliver for themselves — if only they collaborated rather than competed with their neighbours.

Collaboration is the key to the success of Aarhus docklands redevelopment and a key strategy for Cork to pursue.

Stephen Willacy’s essay also concerns itself with Aarhus’s role as the “second city” of Denmark and how the city responds to that sometimes pejorative designation.

This is a thing all second cities find themselves having to deal with, such as in Marseilles in France. I asked writer and broadcaster — and well known Marseillais — Jonathan Meades to comment: “Marseilles is nothing like Paris. It is to Paris what Liverpool is to London, what Glasgow is to Edinburgh — awkward, disobedient, bolshie, and not really very French.”

There is something very familiar to Cork about that. But take a look at la Joliette and Les Docks and see how Marseille’s historic buildings have been cherished and transformed to new uses on a grand scale.

A dawn view of the newly refurbished St Patrick’s Bridge which was recently completed. Picture: David Creedon / Anzenberger

Other colleagues however challenge the very notion of top-down, Government-managed change, and champion grassroots action and individual responsibility as the means to transform the 21st-century city. See how Giulia Vallone, town architect of Clonakilty, has transformed her town with the community at her side, bringing influences from her home in Sicily.

No conversation about Cork in 2018 can duck the issue of the flood defences that are proving so controversial in the city and a running example of top-down Government imposition.

Rising sea levels and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events will affect all low-lying towns and cities, but the solutions available are many and varied.

In Portsmouth in the UK, community action has been working to widen the discussion and look at alternatives, based on a holistic view of the options available and to challenge the “silo thinking” of the Government engineers.

In Cork, a similar role is being taken by the Save Cork City campaign with the Love the Lee flood defence group.

Elsewhere in the region, Bantry Bay’s Protect our Native Kelp Forest group is fighting the threat of mechanical kelp extraction in the bay, which could adversely affect local fishing and marine life.

Local opposition in Skibbereen is opposing what some see an environmentally damaging plastics factory and An Bord Pleanála recently gave permission for a controversial waste-to-energy plant in Cork Harbour.

When people are kept in the dark until after decisions are made, they will naturally object. It’s time to instigate a proper consultation process, so that change can happen, with support, not suspicion, from the community.

Charles Campion of JTP, one of the leaders in community consultation, has released a book, 20/20 Visions: Collaborative Planning and Placemaking, to help communities engage with planning and consultation.

In it, he wrote: “All too often, communities are shut out of the real design and decision-making processes for where they live and they are usually only involved in cursory consultation when it is too late to make a real input. History has shown that this can lead to ill-conceived, unpopular and unsustainable developments”.

Charles continues: “Just as the act of voting is a right, it is inherently democratic to bring people genuinely to the heart of planning and place-making”.

His book aims to give practitioners and communities the inspiration and confidence to introduce Charrettes — a type of intensive, design-driven consultation process — into their planning processes. Twenty international case studies illustrate the strengths of the Charrette process and shows that they can be delivered for a range of project types and scales.

As an architect, I too enjoy the community consultation process. After all, it is the community that have to live with design decisions, so it is essential to ask their opinion and win their trust and respect to give them what they want and need.

Charles concludes: “It is time to change the way things are done and to bring communities genuinely to the heart of planning and place-making.”

In Europe and the UK, public consultation is becoming the norm for all manner of Government decision-making — but let’s not mention Brexit.

Community involvement is a key driver for the success of any project. In order to lead, you must listen before acting — community consultation should be an essential and integral part of the way any mature city or county carries out its decision-making process and that consultation must be embraced as a positive and important contribution, and not a cynical box-ticking exercise.

One of the country’s tallest buildings, The Elysian.

For proof of this, look no further than Giulia Vallone’s community-led projects in Clonakilty. It has a wider messages for Cork city as a whole and the way that future projects could proceed best with widespread public support.

Local architect and campaigner Kevin Smyth said: “The city council under city architects has a strong history of urban regeneration and community-led engagement.

“The dependency on project-based finance and centrally funded projects alongside recessionary pressure have led to a stagnation of these initiatives over the last decade. Cork was one of the earliest councils to adopt a full-on approach to dealing with problematic housing ‘solutions’ from the 1970s. A cornerstone of this success was public engagement and asking the residents what they wanted”.

Kevin went on to say: “They transformed numerous derelict buildings and sites in the 1990s into new housing in the city centre and reclaimed problematic estates from the grip of anti-social behaviour. This was hard work — but it worked with a large community buy-in at the time”.

One can point to a new community-led success at Skibbereen’s Ludgate Hub a start-up business facility, championed by David Putnam, which brought in a 1GB internet connection to transform the way local firms do business.

This success is community-led against the background failure of central government to provide an adequate internet infrastructure to many parts of the country which holds businesses back, particularly small to medium-sized firms and start-ups.

Having travelled to over 100 cities in my professional life, I have come to value cities like Copenhagen and Aarhus, where I lived for 18 months as a post graduate student.

I have seen them change and develop over time in such a positive way. All value their city waterfront and treat it as their main asset and there is no reason why Cork cannot do the same by growing as a “people-led and people first” community.

How is it that the Danes recognise the value of good design and sustainable living — from cycling to house design?

Why can’t Cork engage with its riverside landscape like Copenhagen, Aarhus, or even Bristol and make it a special destination?

When I sat on the active Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) / English Heritage Urban Panel for seven years, we visited over 25 cities, market or seaside towns around England, to advise local authorities and development groups on major new projects.

We acted as a ‘critical friend’ through a diverse group of advisors and experts, to encourage them to see the bigger picture beyond the red-line boundaries and point them towards good examples of similar work to take inspiration from.

We saw at first hand the damage to cities inflicted since the 1960s by the road engineers’ power over the pedestrian with their car-first policies, and we tried to help them repair their urban fabric.

We must create healthier, cleaner, more walkable and liveable cities. It will require dramatically changing our love affair with the car in favour of life as a cyclist and bring back our cities for the pedestrian.

Cork has so many natural advantages to support and facilitate this change of perspective, and I hope supplements like this start a conversation about the best ways to make this happen.

The focus is now on Cork. Please seize this opportunity.

Angela Brady OBE, is a director of London-based practice Brady Mallalieu and is former RIBA president and design champion and chair of Croydon and Bexley Design Review Panels. This article first appeared in the Cork Papers.

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Please feel free to send us your own contribution on what you feel Cork's future holds, what direction you feel the city is heading and what you want Cork to be in the decades ahead? Find out how to send your readers blog contribution for consideration here.

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