Tributes paid following the death of a visionary planner who shaped modern Cork

John O'Donnell died at 85 years of age last month but his legacy will be felt in Cork and Ireland for decades to come
Tributes paid following the death of a visionary planner who shaped modern Cork

John O'Donnell, former city planner for Cork, who died at 85 years old last month.

Tributes have been paid following the death of a visionary planner who had a profound influence on the shaping of modern Cork.

And while some may not know his name, his legacy is evident across the city.

Planners today are striving to create a vision for sustainable and liveable cities in a post-pandemic era - but these were the ideas espoused by former city planning officer John O'Donnell, who always put a focus on cities that valued people, homes, food, art, nature and culture, as much as retail, roads and railways.

Fianna Fáil Cllr Seán Martin led the tributes at the opening of this month’s meeting of Cork City Council to Mr O’Donnell, who began working with what was then Cork Corporation in the early 1970s and who retired in September 2000. He died last month, aged 85.

Educated at Clongowes Wood College and UCD school of architecture, graduating in 1961, he went on to Edinburgh where he obtained a postgraduate degree in planning from Heriot-Watt University for a thesis on the future of Cork.

In 1969, he was a visiting fellow at the Center for Metropolitan Planning and Research in Detroit, in between working for Cavan and Wicklow county councils and as planning adviser to Bord Fáilte, when he was hired by the then Cork Corporation.

The late John O'Donnell. It was while studying for this fellowship in the US that he came across the early master planning work of Skidmore Owings Merrill in Chicago, later bringing them to Cork to help him in the preparation of the 1978 Greater Cork Area Land Use and Transportation Plan.
The late John O'Donnell. It was while studying for this fellowship in the US that he came across the early master planning work of Skidmore Owings Merrill in Chicago, later bringing them to Cork to help him in the preparation of the 1978 Greater Cork Area Land Use and Transportation Plan.

During his time with the local authority, he led the Planning and Development Department as Town Planning Officer, and from 1993, he was the City Planning Officer.

While a senior fellow in Urban Studies at Johns Hopkins University in 1972, he and his wife, Anne, explored the west coast of America in a campervan with three children under the age of four and another on the way.

“The lifelong love he and our mother had for each other was very special and as kindred spirits, they took the opportunity to explore together whenever they could,” his daughter Ellie said.

It was while studying for this fellowship in the US that he came across the early master planning work of Skidmore Owings Merrill in Chicago, later bringing them to Cork to help him in the preparation of the 1978 Greater Cork Area Land Use and Transportation Plan - the still legendary LUTS blueprint which would effectively shape modern Cork for a generation.

The LUTS plan, which for the first time combined strategic land use and transport planning, and a year later, the Cork City Development Plan, not only set out the strategic development of the county until the dawn of the millennium, they also formed the template for all future development plans in Ireland.

The drafting of the LUTS plan stemmed, in part, from the controversial 1968 BKS traffic plan for Cork which had recommended the construction of an elevated three-lane urban motorway as a distributor route around the city, and the widening of several radial routes. It would have required the demolition of 600 houses.

But thanks to the intervention of former city manager, Joe McHugh - they had an excellent working relationship and a shared vision for the city - that roads scheme was abandoned and replaced by the LUTS plan, which was heavily influenced by Mr O’Donnell.

Among its key recommendations were the construction of a South Ring Road and a downstream under river crossing, which although took some time to deliver, did help the city avoid chronic gridlock in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The 1979 Cork City Development Plan, which he also oversaw, placed more emphasis on the city centre core, on developing vacant sites, and it included a fund to encourage owners of run-down houses to renovate them.

Mr O’Donnell was unfortunate, to a certain extent, to be in post during a time of prolonged recession but he used the LUTS plan and the development plan, which came a year later, to lay down the principles that helped revitalise the city when the country’s economic fortunes improved.

Former deputy chief executive of Cork City Council said Mr O'Donnell was ahead of his time. File picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Former deputy chief executive of Cork City Council said Mr O'Donnell was ahead of his time. File picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Patrick Ledwidge, the former deputy chief executive of Cork City Council, who worked with Mr O’Donnell for several years, described him as a deep thinker and visionary.

“He was ahead of his time as these principles were largely the same as those subsequently set out in the European Commission’s ground-breaking document “A Green Paper on the Urban Environment” in 1990,” he said.

In 1980, Mr O’Donnell developed a plan for the historic Shandon area that included a grant scheme for the repainting of buildings. He secured EU funding for the Cork Historic Centre Action Plan, published in 1994, and later for the Cork Urban Pilot Project, a scheme which led to the restoration of the early 18th-century terrace on Fenn’s Quay, which had been considered for demolition, the restoration of St Peter’s Church on North Main Street, now the city council-run Cork Vision Centre, and for two ‘living above the shop’ pilot schemes.

He was a fierce advocate for the city centre, and for city centre living, and he encouraged developments such as the Paul Street and Merchants Quay shopping centres to bolster the city’s retail sector as it faced the challenge of suburban retail. 

He led the city council’s appeal against the Douglas Court shopping centre, which resulted in its scale being reduced, and he had major reservations about Mahon Point shopping centre.

He also championed the sensitive exploration of Cork’s archaeological resource and the publication of a series of detailed reports on it.

The Royal Town Planning Institute recognised Cork’s achievement in integrated urban development when Cork became the first entity outside of the UK to win the Silver Jubilee Cup in 1999.

And with many cities debating the blight of dereliction and vacant sites as they seek to recover post Covid, Mr O’Donnell was said to have been “profoundly irritated” by the failure of successive governments to implement the recommendations of the 1973 Kenny report, which could have capped the price of development land, and prevented much of the vacancy and dereliction we see today. 

Ellie said every aspect of her father’s life was governed by what we now call sustainability and it informed his professional life too in terms of developing “living cities”.

“He understood the importance of culture. As well as a strong conservation and architectural ethos, he also understood the living social and cultural significance of Sir Henry's and art to the vibrancy of the city,” she said.

“He recognised that food was also cultural.

“As young children, we went to the English Market to shop with him every Saturday - unusual for a man to do in the 1970s. He was a superb cook and always used the best of local produce.

“When the English Market burned down in the 1980s, there was talk of turning the site into a car park - a move he strongly resisted as city planner.

“He disagreed with the loss of the buildings on Merchant's Quay - he said you win some battles and lose others - and was an advocate of the importance of the Lee and the quays as the lifeblood and focus of Cork.

“He was not a fan of the current obsession with high rise generally, arguing that it cut inhabitants off from each other and from street life.

“He was a proponent of high-density residential buildings of six or seven storey as in European cities.” 

In his personal life, she said he was a man of “great adventure” who travelled widely with his wife, Anne.

“He never took the direct route even for short journeys, preferring to explore,” Ellie said.

“We were always late. As a young man, he hitch-hiked, took the train or scootered across Europe with his friends but never in a straight line.

“He couldn't pass a hitchhiker without picking them up and offering a meal or a night to stay at our home.

“This extended to anyone he felt was in need of friendship and help. Sustainable travel was important to him. He took the bus or cycled to work every day.” 

Even after a stroke in retirement, when it was important for him to exercise, Ellie said she and her siblings bought him a silver tricycle with mustache handlebars and he became a familiar, though unusual, sight in Blackrock.

“He only gave that up fairly recently because he decided it wasn't prudent to continue to freewheel down the hill to Ballintemple without breaks,” she said.

That spirit of adventure extended to his children and Ellie said he believed in their freedom and independence.

“For instance, when Tom and I were about 14, dad arrived home with two ferry tickets, a map of Brittany and some travellers cheques and off we went on our own,” she said.

Mr O’Donnell was a keen tennis player, rowed for UCD as a student, loved the water, and loved the proximity of Cork to the sea.

He loved a swim at Myrtleville beach and had a deep appreciation and connection with trees, nature and wildlife, joking at one point that he had considered spending some time planting oak trees with the monks at Mountmelleray Abbey who believe in the centrality and restorative power of nature to life to learn more.

Ellie said this love of nature was a strong legacy for his children and beloved grandchildren.

Fianna Fáil Cllr Seán Martin said Mr O’Donnell had great respect for the democratic mandate of elected members and for stakeholder participation, and also made sure his staff understood the importance of both. File picture: Tony O'Connell Photography.
Fianna Fáil Cllr Seán Martin said Mr O’Donnell had great respect for the democratic mandate of elected members and for stakeholder participation, and also made sure his staff understood the importance of both. File picture: Tony O'Connell Photography.

Cllr Martin said Mr O’Donnell had great respect for the democratic mandate of elected members and for stakeholder participation, and also made sure his staff understood the importance of both.

Mr O'Donnell was President of the Irish Planning Institute in 1989/90 and a Visiting Fellow of the Centre for Metropolitan Planning and Research - formerly in Detroit but now based in Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

He is survived by his wife, Anne, their children, Tom, Hugh, Ellie, Sarah and Jessica, daughters-in-law Simone and Marianne, sons-in-law Barry and John, and grandchildren Nora, Finn, Theo, Jesse, Lucy, Louis, Felicity, Leonora and Naomi.

More in this section

Lunchtime
News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up