The Monday Interview: ‘Cork has all the ingredients to be a successful European city’

Having worked with Musgraves, KBC, Port of Cork, the HSE, the Montenotte Hotel and Reardens Group, architectural firm PLM has rebranded as Meitheal. Pádraig Hoare speaks with managing partner Patrick O Toole

The Monday Interview: ‘Cork has all the ingredients to be a successful European city’

Cork-based architectural firm Meitheal is adamant that the economic upswing cannot be wasted, with Cork on the cusp of a special period of transformation but only if the changes are tackled with everyone rowing in the same direction.

Managing partner Patrick O Toole sees Cork’s future as a bright one, with the caveat that mistakes of the past are not repeated.

“Cork has all the ingredients to be a successful European city. Cork is compact already, by accident. It will never be Los Angeles, because we have the wonderful accident of the metropolitan green belt, which protects the circumference of the city. If you were planning a city, Cork is a good model. It is a template to grow in a compact way. It should have diversity in terms of being able to live here, work here, entertain yourself here, educate your children, promoting all strands of life,” he said.

However, compact as it is, also means that land is at a premium, he warns, and its use has to be utilised well. If people are to live in the city centre, they must be encouraged, according to Mr O Toole.

“Density is going to become an issue, as the national spatial strategy says there will be 5.8 million of us in 2046. We need key infrastructure on a national level but, on a micro and local level, it is going to be about density. We are not good at doing public space. If you want to get people living in the city, they need to feel that amenity on the doorstep,” he added.

The so-called Power of 10 concept, which comes from the US-based Project for Public Places, advocates revitalising urban centres by having 10 visual amenities for residents to use in their immediate surroundings. It is a powerful concept, according to Mr O Toole.

“You can audit the number of green spaces on one hand in Cork city centre and peripheral areas. If we are going to convince people to come back to live in the city, we need to offer them a pleasant and viable urban experience, if we incentivise developers to provide better amenity spaces. Public spaces need not be a park, just enough to provide a public amenity. The big gestures are hard because there are a lot of moving parts. Small guerrilla gestures on a pilot basis go a long way. There are lots of excellent people full of goodwill in this city, with good ideas. They promote incremental improvement,” he said.

He points to the likes of Copenhagen in Denmark or Groningen in the Netherlands as templates for Cork city centre’s rejuvenation as a place to live for families.

“Copenhagen is a very good precedent, albeit it has 600,000 people. It’s reasonably compact, it has huge mobility, is sociologically and economically very diverse, and it functions. The public spaces are truly public. In terms of population, Freiburg in Germany and Graz in Switzerland are very comparable. Groningen is lovely. Most of those cities are not Mediterranean sunshine cities. They have old city elements, new architecture, people live in the city and have wonderful public transport for people to get around,” he said.

While small incremental changes and careful utilisation of space is key, a signature building for Cork could also be key, he added.

A 40-storey building has been proposed at Cork’s Docklands by developer Kevin O’Sullivan, a US-based Kerry native who has worked on some of New York’s most iconic buildings.

Mr O Toole said: “There is a school of thought that the best way to quickly transform an area is via an iconic building. The level of ambition and the scale of ambition to make it work -- for the whole docklands, there is a hope and belief that an iconic building can expedite that. It is a market for the area, it becomes something people can identify with. Cork doesn’t have that at the moment but we are at a stage where a signature building of the highest quality can be a catalyst to transform the major sites of Cork.”

Planning remains too encumbered in Ireland, Mr O Toole said, advocating a better approach.

“There are some very talented civil servants, who mean very well--lots of people in all strands of the process doing their absolute best. All that goodwill and energy is quite often hamstrung by the process. It’s very hard if making band-aid decision making depending on policy of the time. The planners can only make decisions on current policy. We’d all advocate a more mature strategy of where the country wants to go. That’s not a criticism of the people, it’s of the system,” he said.

He added: “The planning system is very encumbered. If you come to us to put a modest porch on your home, or 300 apartments in Tivoli, or offices in Blackpool, it is the same system. A hierarchy of importance in the planning system would help.”

No matter how it gets done, Cork must seize the day, he said.

“We missed the last economic cycle. We can’t miss this one. Hopefully, we won’t get it wrong.”

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