When I saw a walk advertised this week with Brendan O’Sullivan of UCC’s Planning School and Department of Geography, my antennae, always finely tuned, got even more ... antennae-like.
I called Brendan and asked what he was likely to be discussing on his stroll, and I got even more interested.
“Do we expect our streets to behave like roads, or the other way around? What is the real cost to the city of free parking in out-of-town shopping centres?
“Is dereliction in the city an issue in itself, or is it really a symptom of a bigger set of issues?
“In political and cultural terms, why doesn’t the phrase ‘urban Ireland’ resonate as powerfully as ‘rural Ireland’ does?
“Are we serious about having a balanced and socially equitable city, or at the end of the day is it all about responding to property trends and globalisation?”
So many questions. And just one walk.
First things first, then. The meeting point is at Kyrl’s Quay, near the Bridewell Garda Station.
“Artists are doing some quirky work down there,” O’Sullivan told me.
“I always wondered about the role of artists, who can swoop in and do some work, because I always felt sorry for them that that work would eventually be demolished and replaced.
“But then I realised that even if that work is temporary, if it encourages people to think about that area in a different way, even for a while, that that has to be a good thing.
“I didn’t appreciate that it’s not so much about the things they make, as the things they make us think about.”
Things such as the shape of the city in the future.
O’Sullivan was a planner for local authorities, including Cork, before joining academia, “so when people give out about city and county councils, I have an instinct to defend them.
“There’s a tendency to tar them all with the same brush — ‘the council made a mess of this’ — not knowing that there are all sorts of battles within the council itself.”
He pointed to John O’Donnell, long-time city planner in Cork, who passed away recently.
“Some of the big things done in the city which we would now regard as mistakes were done behind his back in the sense that other forces rallied round — for instance, the dual carriageway going through Blackpool down to the Opera House.
“In a way, Blackpool village was destroyed by that, but that’s where the roads engineers won the battle against the city planners.
“Similarly with Mahon Point — people saw that as having a potentially devastating effect on the city centre — not just on Cork City, but on Midleton and other areas.
“John O’Donnell opposed that. He knew that far back what could happen to the city centre as a result, and now we’re all bellyaching about Patrick's St and so on.
“But the forces at play can be difficult to resist.”
O’Sullivan made a very telling point about responsibility, one which could do with double-underlining in red biro.
“Sometimes the council does need to be criticised, but sometimes I think they’re criticised for the wrong things.
“There’s a lot of talk about the dereliction in the city centre, for instance, and rightly so, but I see those as symptoms rather than the problem.
“For instance, there’s a big impact on what happens with dereliction in the centre of the city as a result of the actions of the county council with the green belt around the city. I’d encourage people to look at what’s happening on the edge of the city in that regard — the business parks, what happened in Mahon, what could have happened in Carrigtwohill if that retail centre had been permitted.
“Nobody joined all those things up, and it’s time we did. Housebuilders are still looking to the suburbs, the council is trying to rezone land in Carrigaline, and then there’s the Sextant site...”
There’s been no shortage of discussion of the Sextant site here — and elsewhere — in recent weeks.
“The ideology is that you solve the housing crisis by giving more permissions, which the development lobby loves.
“That particular permission was for private housing for people who wouldn’t need cars and so on, but now they [the developers] want offices.
“If so, they can’t go to An Bord Pleanála directly, they’ll have to apply to the city council which — unless it wilts under pressure — must be guided by its own plans, which state that the docklands are meant for living as well as offices.
“Of course, the pressure can then come on from developers who may say: ‘If we can’t build the office here, we’ll build in Limerick or Bristol’.
“It’s either that or a construction industry story which tends to be ‘it’s all very well wanting city living and the docklands, but what people want is suburban living, and we can deliver that’. Hence the push to zone green fields.”
It’s not all doom and gloom. O’Sullivan points out that beyond the dereliction in the city centre there are hopeful signs.
“Some of the census information about the city centre is very interesting.
“A lot of people living there are highly skilled, it’s very diverse ethnically — it’d be shortsighted just to look at derelict buildings and think: ‘It’s a disaster’.”
He’s also heartened by the “grown-up conversations” taking place about the city.
“Take the campaign against the quay walls, where people started off very angry about what was proposed, but have since become very sophisticated as more research has been done.
“Whatever happens, those conversations are good for the city. The draft city plan is out very soon and will be on display for 12 weeks, and that’s a time people should use to shake it to see if anything falls out.”
What is he looking for in the draft plan? Attention for the parts of the city which lie north of the river, one thing.
“Almost all the new development is planned along the southwest corridor — Curraheen and so on — but very little is planned for the northside.
“There’s a lot of soft language about social inclusion and balance, but in terms of property development, what is happening on the northside of the city? That worries me.”
O’Sullivan mentions the proposed train station at Kilbarry, which fell through the cracks a few years back.
“Even if trains didn’t stop there regularly, that would have been seen as a signal of intent, that the northside was being taken seriously.
“A new town is planned for the Monard area, and there’s also a plan to reopen Blarney train station, but the city council is very quiet about it.
“Then again, a lot of that is in the county council area, which brings us back to where we started.”
The interaction of two different municipal authorities — which have had shifting boundaries in recent years — is a factor your columnist, in his innocence, hadn’t factored into his thinking. How many people do?
Get along to Brendan O’Sullivan’s walk this Saturday. Book a place here