Cork flood defences: Pulling together for design of Cork’s quays

In the final part of our series on the redesign of Morrison’s Island, winners HH+ and architect Francis Keane outline their plans.

Morrison’s Island is a wedge of city centre Cork enclosed on two sides by a kink in the Lee and on the third side by South Mall. It possesses an arrhythmical urban grain that conforms to neither the tight medieval street pattern or neo-classical order, that defines much of the remaining city centre.

Where buildings once held the edges to routes and the river, there is now a fragmented mixture of scales, gaps, infills and building types. Further to this, the river frontage is the most vulnerable to flooding of all quays.

This could be seen as an awkward section of the city, sandwiched between the vibrant historic centre to the north, the fast developing docklands to the east, the mixed-use hinterland to the south, and the parklands and universities to the west.

Yet there is latent value here. The School of Commerce, Holy Trinity Church and Capuchin Friary are buildings of civic importance. Along with RTÉ, the hotels and other small businesses, there is good urban substance.

However, the principal asset is the quay. It is metaphorically and literally the ribbon that binds this broken urban condition. It is the most cohesive element on Morrison’s Island.

Its limestone is never in shadow, yet is hidden behind parked cars and beneath clumsy additions, it works quietly between bridges to organise a very important relationship between the city it’s river.

In the past, this relationship was unambiguous. A durable working edge for tall ships to alight upon. A proud arrival point for a prosperous and international city. In this way the limestone quays were a threshold, fully engaged in a transition from sea and river, to land and the city.

The clamour of the 20th century, Cork’s diversification away from shipping and the overlaying of vehicular bridges has introduced ambiguity to the quays and their role in the city.

As a result their value is diminished and low-quality interventions have been permitted. There is clearly confusion about the city’s relationship to the river, most poignantly illustrated by the OPW’s proposal to create concrete walls atop the old quays.

Cork must decide whether it wants a barrier or a threshold between it and its waterways.

Principally among our ambitions is to create an exciting new waterfront. The method for doing so is understood as a series of clearly legible steps.

Through these steps, we would like to provide a catalyst for a wider attitude towards the Lee, and close the gap between Cork’s history and its aspirations for the future.

We have looked for clues from the periods when Cork was most engaged with the river to help inform our approach. Our interventions will occur in the public realm and will belong to the city. To bring the quays back into the foreground, our interventions will not be loud and competitive, but binding and regenerative.

The steps are as follows:

  • Analyse the current situation at a city scale and anticipate future routes, amenities and developments
  • Reroute vehicular traffic and reduce parking, and thereby improve the environment for pedestrians and cyclists
  • Remove timber mooring uprights and salvage for reuse along a new landscaped promenade
  • Strip quays back to sound base, to reveal the full quality of the underlying stonework
  • Add two new wooden footbridges to align with key routes
  • Celebrate the quay by introducing a new landscaped promenade
  • Activate the river and facilitate its usage with a new lightweight pavilion
  • Suggest opportunities for public art works and other forms of ‘urban nourishment’

New materials

Opportunities for public art works and other forms of ‘urban nourishment in this proposal

For our landscape promenade along Fr Mathew Quay and Morrison’s Quay, we begin by placing the historic limestone to the foreground. We do not pour any new material against this stone, choosing instead to raise our bollards above the surface on doweled steel plates and abutting the landward side of the stone with a cobble edge.

The same cobble edge brackets a resin-bound gravel pathway. This new surface is a modern interpretation of the old hoggin pathways which were used in this location historically.

Both mediums are formed with compacted material, and where hoggin pathways would have provided a good growing medium for trees in the past, our new surface opens in sections to allow for new planting.

Moving further away from the river, we use cobbles to form a slow- moving ribbon against the flood wall. This subtle surface change welcomes people onto the riverfront as they pass through openings in the flood barrier.

Aside for the benches which will be constructed from found material, the only new elements proposed above ground level are the bollards and flood wall. These elements borrow from the beautiful rounded stones along Pope’s Quay and the existing rhythm of bollard placement. We explored the idea of introducing a new railing typology but felt it would add to the confusion rather than consolidating existing.

Our new bridges alight on the quay wall like a ship might have in the past. The flood protection located backwards of the quay edge allows this threshold to be flush. We like the use of inset supports to shorten span at St Vincent’s Bridge on the north channel.

We have taken this approach and added a curve to achieve the minimum air draft for boaters to pass at high tide. Our consultant engineer has given us outline guidance on pre-tensing laminate timbers to perform like a leaf spring and achieve the span in a slender and elegant fashion.

The use of timber seems appropriate here, impermanent and supervenient to the quay, and evocative of a maritime history.


Morrison’s Island is a wedge of Cork’s city centre enclosed on two sides by a kink in the River Lee and on the third side by South Mall.

Our attitude towards artificial lighting is very simple. The purity of the quays in the 19th century tell us that we should avoid adding street furniture.

Carefully positioned downlighting to the finned railings of the bridge, beneath the benches and in the flood wall will provide atmospheric low lighting and signal towards the key routes.

We propose to use immersible wall washers along the the quay wall, instead of floodlights or upward facing spots, which have a tendency to dazzle and produce light pollution.

We prefer to use oblique light to cast shadows over the bumpy stone surfaces and guide navigators towards the steps.

What the jury said: Pleasurable new relationship between city and River Lee

Timber mooring uprights would be removed and salvaged for reuse along a new landscaped promenade.

The jury commended the skill of this submission to evaluate and incorporate specific local characteristics, making proposals which deal with the serious issue of flood risk while at the same time creating an attractive and interesting environment for the public to enjoy.

This scheme was valued for its ability to respond to the urban conditions of this part of the city, focusing on the quayside as the principal asset, while recognising and noting that the limestone of the quayside is never in shadow.

The drawings communicate clearly the civic benefit of celebrating and presenting these quays in a new way, adding to the warmth, vitality and amenity of city life.

The proposal describes the quays as ... “a threshold, fully engaged in a transition from sea to river, to land and city.”

The proposal ‘peels away’ layers which have obscured the historic craft of the stonework of the quays, and by positioning retractable flood barriers set back from the existing quays, allows for the preservation and presentation of the historic river edges.

The existing pedestrian bridge, situated uncomfortably on the bend in the river, is replaced by two new timber pedestrian bridges. One of these is located close to Holy Trinity Church and Father Mathew Street, linking George’s Quay directly to the South Mall, while the other connects Morrison’s Quay to Union Quay.

These two bridges provide new vantage points looking up and down each of their respective stretches ofthe river, at the same time providing a new web of connections which will enliven the areas around in new ways.

By removing the existing pedestrian bridge, this submission proposes a new landscaped and seating area at the ‘prow’ of the quayside, providing a new, less congested area to be enjoyed by pedestrians, while enhancing the setting of the adjoining buildings.

A new multi-purpose pontoon on the river along Morrison’s Quay provides the general public with public space located down close to the water. The intention of this intervention is to create an exciting new waterfront amenity.

There is a definite sense of appreciating and understanding materials and the sense of local distinctiveness in this submission.

The historic crafted limestone of the quayside is revealed; bollards are placed on doweled steel plates so as to be raised above the original stone; while a resin-bound gravel pathway, bordered by cobblestones echoing original historic finishes, forms a new quayside promenade.

Old timber fenders, now in poor condition, located on the quay, are removed, salvaged, revitalised and reused to become new benches on the quayside.

This proposal is a well-judged, finely detailed proposition for this important quayside location.

It is particularly well-illustrated by the annotated cutaway, quayside section, and specifically by the communicative illustration called ‘Quay edge along Morrison’s Quay’, which evokes a plausible and pleasurable new relationship between the city and the River Lee.

This entry also benefited from the submission of a comprehensive and highly articulate written report.

Second Place: PoroCity - A holistic, integrated plan

A2 Architects: Jury found the proposal to be an important addition to the discussion of flooding

This elegant and intelligent proposal named PoroCity considered Morrison’s Island in its totality, as defined by the River Lee on two sides and the South Mall on the remaining side.

The strength of this proposal is that it imagines a holistic, integrated solution where architecture, engineering and landscape design overlap to form a coherent strategy.

It envisages the co-operation of various stakeholders in the area, where gardens, pools and open spaces offer a new public network for the citizens to enjoy, as well as providing a system of soakage areas and swales intended to deal with excess water at critical times.

The proposal refers to the historic wetland condition of the area, or the marsh after which the city is named. It merges contemporary and future water management infiltration ponds into a network of water-container civic spaces, together with a micro-network of public drinking fountains within the area.

Reference is made to the historic use of chestnut and hemlock end-grain woodblocks as paving in some areas of the city, such as on Coal Quay and Kyrl’s Quay, and as a way of making Morrison Island re-establish its own distinct character, this proposal includes the use of similar woodblock paving to replace existing asphalt and concrete road surfaces.

Carefully selected trees and the planting of various scales and sizes line the quaysides and enrich the network of new spaces. A metal, universally accessible bridge is proposed to replace the existing bridge.

The jury found this integrated approach to be an important and meaningful addition to the discussion of urban flooding and future strategies.

Third Place: Submission creates new urban vista

GKMP: Jury was particularly impressed by the positioning of the upstream bridge.

This submission includes an important drawing which traces the course of the River Lee from its source to the sea, while proposing a new ‘urban floor’ together with two new bridges to replace the existing bridge.

The jury was particularly impressed by the carefully positioning of the upstream bridge, which is aligned with the impressive facade of Holy Trinity Church connecting to the South Mall.

A beautiful perspective highlights the impact of this architecturally sensitive view. The second new bridge forms a further link across the river, making a new sun-filled, landscaped space.

The quayside itself is landscaped, with particular areas highlighted by intensified planting.

In the interior of the block, bounded by the River Lee and the South Mall, a proposed network of new landscaped spaces enhance the interior of this large city block.

Within this submission are convincing references to examples of surfaces, materials and relevant public spaces throughout Europe.

The quay wall itself is restored with new railings added and the quay front and adjoining streets are resurfaced forming a new ‘urban floor’.

In this submission, the existing car parking is removed and relocated.

A one-way system put in place, with pedestrians and cyclists given priority to improve the quality and amenity of the public realm.

Tidal barrier most viable solution

As the Office of Public Works draws up plans to combat flooding in Cork, the Save Cork City group argues that a tidal barrier is the only solution

Morrison’s Island in Cork city is prone to flooding and wil be one of the areas altered by the OPW’s wall-building scheme. The Save Cork City group is arguing that a tidal barrier, of the kind built in cities all over the world, will provide a more lasting, viable and economic solution. Picture: Larry Cummins

The controversial Office of Public Works (OPW) flood defence scheme for Cork City is the largest ever proposed in Ireland.

This ‘Walls’ scheme is a drainage project designed to ensure that increased amounts of river water can flow from upstream and meet a rising tide without flooding the city, relying only on the construction of heavily engineered wall defences.

In the Netherlands, considerations of economic impact, heritage impact, adaptability, environmental impact and the wishes of citizens, influence all proposals for flood protection at the early design stages. If drainage walls don’t make sense in the Netherlands, another way is found.

Like building on flood plains, the construction of walls for flood defence causes higher water levels in rivers. The Rhine River is currently being re engineered to reverse poor drainage practices, creating a landscape of ditches, trees and floodplains as well as directing water towards storage areas.

The principle is simple: when it rains, if water finds its way to our rivers over a longer period, less flooding occurs. Holistic management of rivers is good long term practice relating to climate change and significantly improves water quality and promotes wildlife habitats.

The real secret to achieving river based flood relief in Cork, however, is not just land management but the optimal use of the existing upstream dams.

The OPW Drainage Department discounts the capacity of the existing dam structures to keep our city safe. HR Wallingford, world leaders in hydrology and maritime engineering has confirmed that optimisation and investment in the current dam infrastructure can fully protect Cork from upstream flooding. This could be carried out for a mere fraction of the cost of the ‘Walls’ scheme.

The quays around Parliament Bridge stem from the early 18th and 19th century and above the bridge towards St Finbarrs, they are from the 16th and 17th century.

The World Bank recommends the restoration and repair of historic city cores to create economic advantage while noting the effects on the wellbeing of citizens. The rich heritage of our river could be the catalyst to creating an attractive city centre destination as demonstrated by countless examples throughout Europe.

Why risk destroying the largest intact Georgian riverscape in the world when there is a better alternative?

Good design within an historic environment is an art form and Cork deserves the consideration of good design both in terms of flood prevention and the historic landscape.

The river has inspired our commerce, our poetry, song, art, architecture, accent and even our sporting endeavours. The ‘Walls’ scheme negates this soulful connection to our ancestors and separates us from the river that we love.

The River Lee and Holy Trinity church at Fr Mathew Quay, Cork, where the save Cork City group say the ‘Walls’ flood scheme proposed by the OPW will cause significant environmental damage. Picture: Larry Cummins

The construction of up to nine kilometres of deep trenches filled with concrete and walls and pump chambers with over a kilometre of sheet piling would pollute and destroy river habitats of fish, birds and mammals as seen in other towns in Ireland subjected to similar schemes.

The possibility of using walls as flood defence was considered in Venice but fully rejected due to the rotting of building piles and the mass subsidence of buildings that would result in alterations to the below ground water table.

But there is an alternative. A survey carried out by HR Wallingford found a tidal barrier would make the walls unnecessary and would avoid the scenario of “failure of flood walls in the city which would cause serious risk to life as well as damage to the city”.

Under the OPW’s plans, the construction of 46 pump chambers, 22 of which are within the historic city centre would also mean a new susceptibility to flooding from rainwater.

The city centre would become a sealed bowl that can no longer drain itself without pumps.

Managing the walls and gate pump chambers would represent a financial burden and disruption to everyday life that would become increasingly harder to bear over time.

The survey carried out by HR Wallingford shows a tidal barrier would protect far more of the city than the ‘Walls’ scheme and is a faster solution.

The Little Island tidal barrier is the most economical, viable and environmentally considerate solution to providing flood protection for Cork. The storage behind it is far in excess of what’s required for a barrier that would only close for a few hours in the event of a flood event. The location is based in shallow water, behind the main drainage outlet on the edge of the harbour.

It avoids dividing the harbour in two as proposed by the OPW barrier at Passage and East Ferry with all the environmental impact that that would cause.

By separating upstream fluvial water from tidal water and providing flood protection to a much greater area of the city, the Little Island tidal barrier is the only solution that makes the development of the docklands economically viable while also protecting the historic city.

While the OPW has done much good work, what is proposed for Cork is unsupported by all flood relief experts. The OPW stance is leading to unnecessary confusion and fear in the city, with the prospect of stagnation of investment as a result.

Dublin City Council has started the conversation about a prospective tidal barrier for Dublin in acknowledgement that continuing shoreline defences (walls) are aesthetically unacceptable and deficient due to multiple technical considerations.

It is unlikely that the citizens of Dublin would accept the destruction of their granite quay walls when better options exist.

In addition to having a more acute need, Cork has many geographical advantages over Dublin in that a tidal barrier can be delivered at a fraction of the cost in the shallow water adjacent to Little Island with no adverse environmental, shipping or navigation impacts.

The south channel of the River Lee and Trinity Bridge with College of Commerce on the left where the OPW plan to increase the height of the quay walls. Picture: Larry Cummins

Tidal barriers are used worldwide to protect cities for good reason. As we hope to emerge from recession Cork City cannot afford another lost decade when there is a better alternative.

Experienced international experts from the UK and Holland recommend a tidal barrier as the most appropriate solution for Cork.

Our finest academics with expertise in hydrology, hydraulics, climatology and economics recommend the tidal barrier as the best solution for Cork.

What Cork now requires is greater leadership from our national and local politicians to put an end to the threat of a forced ‘Walls’ scheme.

Cork is at a turning point in its history. We either accept that a tidal barrier can unlock the potential of our city or we can pursue the limited proposal for walls that would cause social and economic stagnation for generations.

In the words of JFK: “An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it”. We need to correct this error simply because it is the right thing to do for future generations.

The Save Cork City Solution Document Potential Cork is available to download at

More on this topic

Vital Cork flood-prevention scheme delayed further

Midleton flood relief target to be hit

Demountable barriers part of Cork city’s flood plan

Cork flood defence opponents ignoring ‘holistic approach’


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