Michael Moynihan: Word on the street — class is a greater taboo  than sex or politics

Michael Moynihan: Word on the street — class is a greater taboo  than sex or politics

People out walking at the Marina, Cork. Picture:  Dan Linehan

I want to start this morning with the story of John Snow and the infamous water pump in Broad Street, which takes us back to nineteenth-century London.

When cholera broke out in the city in 1854 Snow, a doctor, tracked the disease using maps and deductive reasoning to a communal water pump in Broad Street: he realised the illness was spread through infected water and prevailed upon the local authorities to shut the pump down, which resulted in a dramatic fall in the number of cases.

This was the kind of plot twist we usually find in a Netflix series, probably with Benedict Cumberbatch as the dashing medic, but it in turn led to less dramatic but more long-lasting effects on the lives of Londoners and other city dwellers in turn — the need to supply them with a clean water supply. One of Snow’s discoveries was that some of the water being used in London came from a well dug three feet from a cesspit, which meant that matter from the cesspit had leaked into the well: you can guess the rest.

For this reason Snow is regarded as a founder of epidemiology (something which might surprise the hundreds of epidemiologists you can now meet every day on social media), but his story also shows how an epidemic can have an impact on how a city develops. The need for a clean water supply for the teeming thousands of London had a clear impact on how that city developed and expanded over the century-and-three-quarters since, which leads us to an obvious question.

What will the effect of the Covid epidemic be on Cork?

Already there are visible signs to be found in the city if you care to look. Early on — in the first lockdown — there was general surprise at the quietness of the streets as businesses, schools and workplaces shuttered, but that was temporary.

There are other signs which are more permanent. If you are lucky enough to live within five kilometres of the Marina you’ve no doubt seen the throngs walking up and down the riverside there — socially distanced, of course — and enjoying the amenity.

By creating a traffic-free zone there the city council has made a significant difference to the lived experience of people in the city, and it should be commended for that. Retaining the Marina as a (relatively) car-free zone which is dedicated to the people who wish to stroll there is a welcome development that will hopefully outlive the current crisis; better still, it should hopefully stand as one of the more positive legacies of the pandemic, whenever that ends.

Is that the start of more pedestrianisation? Should it be? A quick glance abroad shows that some cities are moving to remove traffic from streets altogether to make them more liveable for their occupants.

The near-global lockdown and the need to keep people from travelling too far from home are the main drivers in this initiative, generally referred to as the ‘slow streets’ movement. The logic is hard to gainsay: by removing most or all car traffic from the streets you encourage people to walk or cycle, children feel a lot safer coming out to play on the streets and their parents feel a lot safer leaving them out to play on the streets.

Pollution goes down. People are out and engaging with their neighbours more, which builds a sense of community for the long term, and in the short term people aren’t hopping in their cars to nip around town and meet others and spread the virus

All good news, right?

Not so fast.

The vexed issue of traffic in Cork introduces a whole set of other questions here. An obvious starting query would be how one would create slow streets in a traffic ecosystem where an issue at the Jack Lynch Tunnel, for instance, can create a logjam in suburban streets four miles away. (Your columnist speaks here from bitter experience.) There are other challenges which have popped up since slow streets came on stream. More than one person has pointed out that an environment where people can gather together in numbers, despite being in the open air, is not a recipe for success in curtailing outbreak of a highly infectious disease, but that can legitimately be termed a short-term issue.

A bigger concern in places like Oakland, California, which created over seventy miles of ‘slow streets’ last April has been people’s unhappiness with the lack of consultation: this quickly became an issue of race and disadvantage, and that experience was replicated in Los Angeles.

In the latter city the creation of slow streets created a tension between residents who were working from home for the most part, often in professional/managerial/administrative roles, who were obviously in favour of quiet streets as they did that work — and residents in other areas who relied on public or private transport to get them to jobs which could not be done remotely — in retail, cleaning, food service and so on.

The above scenario is one painted with broad brush strokes, obviously, but it does introduce one of the trickiest yet least-discussed element of any large-scale scheme introduced in this country. It’s something which everyone has a stake in, willing or not, and something everyone has an opinion on, whether they share that opinion or not.

I refer to social class.

A few weeks ago here I had a lighthearted look at snobbery in Cork, but even though I gave some observations from the front line of the snobbery wars which were obviously funny, the depressing thing is that some people regard those observations as unvarnished truth rather than examples of the stupidity needed to engage in snobbery.

All of which brings me back to slow streets in Cork. On one hand it would be great to see streets that are oriented towards the people who need them and use them every day rather than those who need to use them the odd time as a rat-run or for (often illegal) parking.

It’s no accident that one of the most lasting concepts circulated decades ago by Jane Jacobs, the original urbanist, was the need for ‘eyes on the street’ — the maintenance of a sense of a community in an urban environment through simply having people out on the street.

On the other hand, there’s the original sin of achieving anything in Cork (and many other places if the truth be told).

What does this initiative mean for me? Is it better for the people over there than it is for us, the people over here? Are they getting more favourable treatment for their area than ours because theirs is a ‘better’ address? Are we at least getting more favourable treatment than those with a ‘worse’ address?

Class is a greater taboo in Ireland than sex or politics, or sex in politics, and one we need to talk about more — as we did just here, in fact.

The only problem is it took cholera in London, the pedestrianisation of the Marina and arguments in California to get us to the starting blocks. We’ll come back to this, though.

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