Saving historic heart of our towns

HIGH streets and town centres throughout Ireland have come to look the same in recent years, with regular department stores and the brash brand names of largely overseas multiples increasingly dominating the streetscape.

The result is that many cities and urban areas have lost their individual identities. Often, the only saving grace is some old or historical building that stands out because it is so different to the glass, steel and plastic facades of today. The venerable landmarks are usually officially ‘listed’ for preservation, whilst some simply escape the rush to modernisation.

However, there’s evidence that places which are retaining their historic environments are doing better economically. We’re told there is something in the human psyche that makes people enjoy being in historic environments. Sounds like a no-brainer, though obviously not to many commercial developers who ran riot during the boom years.

But, just think for a moment of how a town such as Clonakilty, in west Cork, can make the most of its built heritage, or why Adare, Co Limerick, always seems packed with tourists and coaches. The prime reason surely is that both are lovely places in which to be, enhanced by a deep sense of tradition and atmosphere.

The east Cork town of Youghal, famous for its built and natural heritage, sees a heritage-led regeneration plan as compensating in some way for huge losses in local manufacturing in the past decade.

Youghal Town Council has come up with a strategy that includes conservation of the landmark Clock Gate, work estimated to generate a €400,000 spin-off for local business each year. Property owners on the Main Street are also being offered a 50% grant to paint their facades in a historically-sensitive way. Conservation of the Youghal’s town walls is also a key part of the plan.

A recent Heritage Council conference on economic growth heard London-based property adviser David Geddes tell how historic environments in towns and cities play a critical role in nurturing types of business clusters that do not otherwise normally develop.

“It is important that those responsible for planning and regeneration in every town and city across Ireland have a good understanding of its historic environments in their town and city and a plan for making the most of them,” he said.

Mr Geddes has conducted extensive research in Britain into the economic and social effects that historic environments have in towns and cities and has been working on the implications, in Ireland, for Limerick and Waterford.

A survey of 35,000 people living across Britain found that cities known for their heritage dominated the top ratings, with York emerging as the most enticing English destination outside London, and Edinburgh twice as popular as Glasgow.

“There is a direct correlation between the number and nature of heritage assets in cities and towns and their appeal as places to live, work and visit,” Mr Geddes noted. “It is not just a case of people liking historic environments, they like the types of activity that takes place in those environments.”

The research showed the importance of creating environments where people enjoy spending leisure time. Brighton is cited as an example.

“Making the most of historic environments is the only known way of overcoming the blandness of town centres that people so often complain about, the so-called ‘clone town’ effect where every town centre looks alike,” Mr Geddes remarked.

Heritage is even the key factor in the success of world famous streets like London’s Bond Street and Regent Street, he stated. They attract top rents and shops that are not found elsewhere because modern retailing spaces have been created behind historic facades. That gives them an edge over nearby Oxford Street.

Mr Geddes said the lessons from Britain were totally applicable to towns and cities across Ireland. The long-term prosperity of Limerick city centre, for example, is entirely reliant on making more of its great historic assets.

“It should be aspiring over the medium to long-term to make O’Connell Street the finest in Ireland, to use the castle and riverside to create the best riverside park in Europe and to nurture concentrations of interesting small businesses in the historic areas on the edge of the city centre. It is lucky to have the assets to be able to do that. Now, it is a question of making the most of them.”

Commenting on David Geddes’ research, Heritage Council chief executive Michael Starrett referred to ‘ghost estates’ all across the country, but felt there were real opportunities for towns and villages to take control and shape a different future for themselves.

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