What can you tell from the cityscape? Really? What can you extrapolate from what you see when you walk the streets?
With that in mind, I met Frank O’Connor and Jude Sherry for coffee recently.
They run anois.org, a consultancy which co-creates products, packaging, policies, brands, strategies as well as training and development programmes. It seeks to make eco-design and the circular economy the norm, according to their website, and between them, they have 50 years' experience working with businesses, governments, and education.
They also recently started posting pictures of derelict houses and sites around Cork, having moved to the city.
“We wanted to live car-free and were used to being able to walk to shops and restaurants and so on in Holland,” said Jude.
“.” Frank chipped in: “For us, it was about the centre of the city but for a lot of Irish people it’s about the suburbs.
“A lot of the people — we find — living in or near the centre aren’t Irish, they’ve moved here, while a lot of Irish people don’t seem to want to move to the centre or near the centre of the city.” Their interest in the city filtered inwards at first — to their own home, the house they bought near the North Cathedral.
“We researched the house and found it was far older than people realised.
“We found out how it was built, why it was built that way, the people who lived there, the history of the street . . . That’s what we’re interested in, and then we moved out to the street, through Blackpool, taking pictures and looking at spaces.” This led eventually to them taking those pictures of vacant houses around the city and posting those pictures online.
This wasn’t just a matter of simple documentation: the houses are representative of a range of challenges facing the city, crystallising issues that occupy the minds of urban dwellers everywhere.
“Sustainability, for us, is tied to durability and longevity,” says Jude.
“And we’re looking around the city at houses that are just sitting there without being used. In the cases of some houses, they’re beyond saving, but a lot of them aren’t. They could be saved if a proactive approach was taken.
“In Amsterdam, we’d go for a walk around the city most days, and we do it here too, but it can be depressing.
“You have people talking about homelessness, and housing costs, and the cost of land, but there are houses and there is land — it’s just not being utilised.” This is the key point when it comes to those vacant houses — how they represent something that’s a lot more diffuse.
They can be seen on one level simply as a visual indicator of urban decline, but they also illustrate different threads of city life: housing and homelessness, sustainability and the environment, the city’s economy and availability of space for work and life, property ownership, city council policy — the list of threads go on, if by threads you actually mean challenges.
One obvious question, however: given the diversity of challenges, who is the person to pull all those threads together? Is it too much for any one individual, come to that?
“That’s a big part of it,” says Frank. “We felt with the thread we could start a conversation, by putting up pictures of the houses.
“We were new to Cork and didn’t have much of a network built up, so this was a way to build up connections.
“But it’s the overall picture — trade, making, crafts, arts, heritage, housing, sustainability. There’s a lot in the overarching area.
“The thread started off focused on housing and homelessness but it’s opening into that wider stuff all the time. It gets into the sense of place, into wellbeing and health, heritage and culture, all of those areas.
“Some cities have recognised early on that if you invest in respecting and maintaining your heritage there’s economic value generated by that.
“We’re geeks about this stuff so with the likes of North Main Street, South Main Street, we’ve gone into the building materials used, the history, archives, and maps to get an overall understanding of those areas.
“But your point is right — who brings all of those connections together? We’re passionate about housing and homelessness, but you can go too far down that one direction, and it becomes ‘all about housing’.
“You have to bring the whole story together. It’s the same with sustainability, which people always say costs money. It may cost a small amount initially, but within five years you see the return on that.
“For instance, if North Main Street alone was transformed you’d have tourism, people living there, but everywhere we go see lost opportunities.” The irony is that while they’re documenting the number of vacant buildings in the city, finding business premises to rent is “very hard”, says Frank: “There are a lot of barriers in your way. But anyone who’s bought a house in Ireland knows how complicated that process can be.” And yet, and yet. Both of them are positive about the experience of living on Leeside. There are advantages to Cork which can be leveraged.
“Our message is that there are opportunities here,” says Frank.
“And you have to start somewhere.
“We have friends coming from overseas, and they love Cork. At times you might be making excuses about the place, but there are a lot of positives here as well, don’t forget.”
“Cork’s manageable, for instance,” says Jude. “That’s a big thing. You’re not dealing with something the size of London — or even Dublin.
“The size of the city is a big advantage. Cork’s such a different city, it has such a crazy mix of architecture. It’s truly unique.
“And people are super-friendly. Seriously.” “We loved Holland and we learned a lot,” says Frank. “But it wouldn’t have the same social feel as Ireland. Or Cork, specifically. It’s got the beauty of the Dutch style, the Mediterranean feel, the hills, and it’s all walkable.” It doesn’t all have to be about sweeping national policy, either, he adds: “A vegan place opened in Kyle Street recently, which is exciting because it’s different.
“And because it’s different other businesses which are different may open nearby, in a great part of the city with huge potential.”
“Using people like that, artists and so on, is a proven way to regenerate an area,” adds Jude.
“Get the artists in to do it on the cheap — and then they get kicked out later when the area gets too expensive, of course, but if you want to regenerate it’s a proven way to do it.” True enough. But as we discussed, who’s the person to drive change in Cork?