Michael Moynihan: How our home by the Lee holds up on restorative cities check list

Cork isn’t in the forefront of women-friendly urban design
Michael Moynihan: How our home by the Lee holds up on restorative cities check list

Heading towards Parliament Bridge Cellist Gerry Kelly plays a short colo Bach recital on the River Lee, Cork to highlight the love Corkonians have for their river and its historic quayside. Picture: Dan Linehan

I was revving up nicely last weekend for a column comparing Cork with Dublin because I — along with thousands of other southerners — was in the capital for a particular occasion. Full of the joys, I bestrode the streets of Dublin, ready to expound...

Then Sunday happened (the All-Ireland defeat to Limerick), and we all retreated south.

In retrospect it was a lazy idea. I would have been exploiting the rising tide of hyperlocal patriotism for my own nefarious ends and using it as an excuse to attack a fine city in its own right, and for that I apologise.

(I detect an idea bound to resurface at some stage in the future — ed.)

In any case, I found far better material to share with you, gentle reader, in the form of the new book Restorative Cities: urban design for mental health and wellbeing by Jenny Roe and Layla McCay.

McCay is the founder and director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, while Jenny Roe is an environmental psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia.

In a recent interview with Citylab, McCay spelt it out: “Living in a city, you’re assailed by a lot of input.

“You’re experiencing things that always make you feel or think or act in some kind of way, and your brain is processing them all the time...

“Creating a restorative city means making changes within the environment so that as you go about your day you have opportunities for your brain to experience respite in spaces that are relaxing or stimulating in creative rather than stressful ways.”

I was already on board before I discovered the table of contents of the book, which amounts more or less to a checklist. And as anyone who knows me can attest, give me a checklist and I am yours for life.

McCay ran through the aspects of a city that help it to become a ‘restorative city’, and I couldn’t help but apply the same criteria to Cork to see how it matches.

The Green City

McCay refers in her interview to integrating nature into the city, and on this count Cork looks to have a mixed record.

One clear plus is the appointment of the trees officer, mentioned in these pages several times recently, though one clear question-mark is the recent arrival of our, er, robot trees.

The latter were installed with the clear purpose of cleaning air, but even with the bench-type effect at their base, they could hardly be likened to a sylvan grove, soothing the fevered brows of city dwellers. Mixed results here for Cork.

The Blue City

Cork has a huge advantage over many cities in the presence of the Lee and a large harbour, given that “water, both in natural and human-made settings, makes us feel calm and relaxed,” as McCay says.

Again, the record’s a little mixed here. While the city in general is turning slowly towards the river, particularly when you get past the old docks, controversy still bubbles away about plans for the river in the city proper.

A few weeks ago we had a cellist playing music to the citizens from the river itself on behalf of Save The Lee, which is an ironic mix of the soothing and calming on one hand (the cello music) with conflict and argument on the other (the debate itself). Another mixed result.

The Sensory City

McCay points out that the sensory overload of a busy city can overwhelm people, hence the importance of “a sonic refuge — a quiet place in the city”. That can be a tall order, but readers may remember a few weeks ago when I spoke to Damien Drohan about his Cork Sound Map. Damien spoke about the parts of Cork which weren’t silent but which were interesting sonically. There are parts of the city which aren’t as quiet as a soundproof recording booth, but there are places where the lapping of the river can relax you.

They just need to be found, but that’s up to the individual.

The Neighbourly City

One of the early columns in this space had to do with the 15-minute city, and at first glance this idea might appear to be running on the same track.

But McCay talks about “optimising social opportunity by positioning a mini-park next to a market or church” — which brings to mind another development that I’ve discussed here, the parklet phenomenon. 

When I discovered this was going on in Cork it was interesting to see the kinds of places envisaged for those parklets — (Three Piggies deli on Union Quay, the Quay Co-op on Sullivan’s Quay, Civic Trust House on Pope’s Quay, and the Imperial Hotel on South Mall).

In all those cases they are main roads or quays, or they facilitate those coming into the city from the north — or southside. Top marks to Cork on the neighbourly city.

The Active City

Because McCay and Roe are talking about a restorative city they’re keen on walkable and bikeable areas which “naturally provide physical benefits but they also offer mental health and brain function”. 

Not long ago I spoke to cycling activist Conn Donovan about Cork as somewhere to cycle and the takeaway for me was a lot done, a lot more to do. Can we say we’re on the right track at least?

The Playable City

I was intrigued by the suggestion by the book’s authors that it is “very important that opportunities for play are not just for children”.

Yet the obvious point is that adults have the means to create and access play opportunities for themselves — and children don’t.

In fairness, that too seems to be improving within the city itself judging by a report in these pages about Cork’s new play trails.

Another good sign.

The Inclusive City

This is key, says McCay, because in order for people to make the most of the designed opportunities, they need to have a sense of belonging and meaningful access to the city’s facilities — she goes on to make the point that women are often deterred from accessing all of a city’s facilities by safety concerns.

How is our city doing here? Your columnist isn’t the only person to point out that Cork isn’t in the forefront of women-friendly urban design. That’s a long-running challenge, and is possibly the biggest single obstacle to creating a truly restorative city, which is one that ties all of those elements together.

Glass half-full or half-empty? Awareness of the challenge is encouraging, surely, but we need more action in some areas, and some agreement on the river in particular, if we are to move forward.

Restorative Cities: urban design for mental health and wellbeing by Jenny Roe and Layla McCay (Bloomsbury).

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