Cork County on the Rise: People the priority in redesign of urban spaces

The Clonakilty 400 Masterplan puts people first, writes Giulia Vallone

Cork County on the Rise: People the priority in redesign of urban spaces

The Clonakilty 400 Masterplan puts people first, writes Giulia Vallone

A TYPICAL Irish market town consisted of a main road with two to three-storey buildings, some pubs, churches, a post office and shops with retail on the ground floor and living accommodation over the shop and a town square where the animal market fair took place once per month. The town was the vibrant gathering centre of its economic hinterland.

Since the advent of the car, the market function of main streets and squares has been eroded. Furthermore, national and regional road design priorities have been imposed on urban environments.

This, together with the consequences of out-of-scale housing projects during the Celtic Tiger era (1998 to 2008), have further eroded the identity of the traditional town.

As a result, people no longer feel comfortable inhabiting the townscapes. Town centres are replaced by out-of-town retail shopping centres, with petrol station forecourts becoming the new gathering places, providing fast food and convenience retail.

Towns today have become the triumph of road engineering design standards over urban design principles. The associated clutter of car parking, road markings, signs, traffic lights, street lights, onerous flux levels and road signage, all destroy what was once a coherent streetscape.

The result is a hollowing out of the town centre with first and second floors becoming derelict, with empty dark windows, streets void of people and now surveyed by Garda CCTV cameras.

The depopulation is accelerated by the recent economic recession, and the competitive employment opportunities of cities. The recent decision by the Dublin-centric government to abolish town councils, as a national cost-saving and political reform exercise, has exacerbated the problem.

There used to be a tradition of meeting and “dancing at the crossroads” on New Year’s Eve and religious processions marched along the main street. Today, the mart day animal fair in the main square is replaced with a single function public space — as a surface carpark.

How do Italians use public space?

Asna Square. Picture Dan Linehan
Asna Square. Picture Dan Linehan

In Italy, the town square has the role of a multifunctional stage for the community.

Social activities such as religious events, food, sports and music take place in the streets making them vibrant places. In my home town in Sicily, ice-cream stands and even octogenarians have been traditionally established as successful “traffic calmers”.

Elderly people are integrated into public life in town centres, enabling inclusiveness and healthy communities.

The Italian public space principle can be successfully applied to Irish towns and villages, like in the market town of Clonakilty, West Cork, where an urban design masterplan based on community engagement has been applied and the car priority reversed into a “people-come-first policy”.

Clonakilty 400 Masterplan was initiated in 2013 by the former town council to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Clonakilty town charter.

The aim of this project was to re-establish the public realm in Clonakilty. The objective was to make the community aware of the heritage value of its townscape, including traditional shop-front preservation, and by re-establishing social activities on the street.

A heritage-led urban design plan was formulated which focused on providing new “living rooms” for civic and social events. The brief was to redevelop the town’s historical public space, which had been dominated by car parking, empty buildings and blighted by antisocial behaviour.

A contemporary public realm design layer was proposed for Asna and Emmet Squares, connected by an urban streetscape, as phase two of the masterplan.

At Asna Square, a paved ellipse binds the environment with a strong geometric statement reminiscent of Neolithic ring forts and stone circles found in West Cork.

This geometric pattern, omitting road marking and signage, establishes a shared surface to accommodate passing cars, café seating and informal gatherings around a new pocket park that ensures pedestrian priority.

Further up the street, alterations to Emmet Square create a re-landscaped park, a new water feature, a newly commissioned bronze sculpture and the new Michael Collins House Museum.

The design is based on the reduction of street clutter and the provision of “mini squares” at strategic locations, improving the legibility of the street and providing public terraces furnished with street chairs and coffee tables, inviting people to stop and use the street in many creative ways.

The initial challenge of loss of car parking from the main street resulted in a positive opportunity, also shared by the retailers, to properly address universal design, street furniture for the elderly and tree landscapes.

Safety, inclusiveness and place-making were crucial points to further establish pedestrian priority over the car and to give a sense of place.

Night-time passive surveillance and attractiveness was a particular concern and this objective became an important theme, resulting in lighting that attracts a variety of patrons of the town to gather there in the evenings, thus discouraging antisocial gatherings.

A concerted effort was made to engage the community throughout the design process and residents were consulted at each stage from the formulation of the brief to addressing concerns with the final design.

The development of a bottom- up, public-participation-led approach to the urban planning design process for public spaces, justifies the role of the town architect as a community problem solver.

The town architect is uniquely placed to engage, harness and promote civic input, as well as to act as the standard bearer for the town’s built environment.

This role allows us to preserve architectural character through quality design, public participation in place making, promotion of visual awareness and by creating a stronger sense of ownership with positive outcomes of civic stewardship and economic development.

There were a number of stages required to engage the public in their project. Firstly the aim was to identify and empower the expert citizen by gathering local knowledge and empowering the community.

Then working together to form a brief of priorities from multiple sources and across various scales. Community leaders and expert citizens came forward to engage in the process and they became project champions.

The next step was to develop a design analysis that generated an agreed vision, inspiring the town team and applying a new layer of quality contemporary design and spaces for public life, focusing on inclusive space.

It was important to identify roles within the community for project ambassadors such as; the town manager, the politician, the tidy towns committee, the chambers of commerce and heritage groups, with the town foreman becoming the town custodian.

An holistic design approach was then applied which drew on national and local policies and their associated funding budgets, to deliver the one public space vision.

It was also important to inspire people to care by creating and supporting the sharing economy, connecting stories of community collaboration to their places, honouring innovation and allowing space for experimentation which gives equal relevance to failure and success.

The outcomes of the civic stewardship are free maintenance of the public space and inspiring tolerance and pride in the community. The success of public engagement from the early design stage is evident in the celebrations after it was completed, which became an essential part of the design brief, including events like the Street Carnival, Christmas lights, Random Kind of Smile, Old Costumes Fair and much more.

Monitoring the success

Emmet Square in the heart of Clonakilty is an elegant square of Georgianstyle houses built in the late 1700s.
Emmet Square in the heart of Clonakilty is an elegant square of Georgianstyle houses built in the late 1700s.

If you walk down Pearse St in Clonakilty, locals will stop you to tell you of their latest sporting team success, or their tidy town gold medals, inviting you to join them to sit on their new street furniture, which is designed for easy conversation.

People you don’t know will greet you going down the new coloured main street with ‘mini squares’ and well-preserved shop fronts, even if they have never met you before.

Follow the music of hundreds of guitarists parading Main Street, as you are part of the International Guitar Festival; The Old Costumes fair, Random Act of Kindness and the Street Carnival. These are just a few of the many occasions when cars are temporarily banished from Main Street and the whole town centre becomes a place for public life and community enjoyment.

Today, the juxtaposition of the contemporary public realm layer and urban design with its surroundings is considered by all to be a successful intervention that is attracting new town patrons and private investment.

Higher property prices and previously empty buildings are now occupied, delivering new urban vibrancy and a real sense of community.

Redevelopment of public realm in our town centres is a crucial tool to deliver liveable and vibrant places to attract people to work, live and visit.

Reclaiming our streets for people instead of car domination is the secret of success in Clonakilty, based on smart use of public funding.

It demonstrates that standard re-instatement works should never merely be an exact replacement of the existing, but rather an opportunity to rethink the street, to deliver better quality public realm for our towns and communities to reflect how we want to live today.

Giulia Vallone is senior architect at Capital Projects Implementation Unit CPIU, Cork County Council

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