As the momentum for a re-developed O’Connell street gathers pace, it is important to consider how O’Connell street interacts with the entire city. O’Connell street isn’t just the nominal main street through the city. It is the core of the city. It is the major artery through which all aspects of the city must interact.
Limerick city centre’s population has been declining in successive censuses, largely because the city centre is not perceived to be a pleasant place to live. The overall population of the city, city suburbs and county have been rising over the same period, so the population decline is unique to the city centre. Limerick city is a primary driver of the entire Midwest region, any decline in the city will ultimately feed out into the entire region. We need to build a city centre where people choose to live, choose to visit and choose to socialise in, and in order to do so, we need to work out what is currently hampering the liveability of Limerick city centre.
Firstly, Limerick city centre does not have a central public civic space at the heart of the city. There is no central town square or park from which the city radiates. Secondly, Limerick city is bisected by several large roads, that carry people through the city but add little to the atmosphere of the city itself. The obvious, and much called for, solution is to transform O’Connell street into that civic space the city needs.
Depending on how we want the city to develop, we need to examine if we can continue to have our main street as a car thoroughfare above all else. The most important aspect of the redesign has to consider the role of cars in any new design. If we want to revitalise the city centre, and the city overall, we need to make the immediate core of the city a more pleasant place to live but in order to do so we need remove or reduce the primacy of the car on the street.
Instead of being a destination in and of itself, the lay-out of O’Connell street ensures that the car is the primary user of the street. It turns the city into a carriageway to be traversed. This function has the unfortunate but inevitable effect of ensuring O’Connell street isn’t a place to spend time on. We effectively have a single direction dual carriageway running through the centre of the city. The impact of a continually moving metal wall of cars prevents the city from having a pleasant core, and the lack of a pleasant core makes the city overall a more unpleasant place to live.
Before re-designing O’Connell street it has to be accepted that any new design needs to be either car free or car restricted to a great extent. You cannot have a pleasant main street, and have it function as a dual carriageway. Going further, we cannot develop O’Connell street into a civic space and have the current volume of traffic on the street. The most successful commercial streets in Ireland are car free, so we know it works from a business point of view.
It is easy to imagine the city centre we want Limerick to have but is the political will there to deliver this city for its citizens? It is easy to envisage a city of tree lined boulevards, pleasant restaurants, lively bars and large civic spaces where festivals can be held. It is hard to envisage that city occurring while the main thoroughfare is a dual carriageway. Limerick has the enviable design that allows us imagine wide pleasant streets. That we don’t currently have them is largely because we prioritise car traffic and car parking over having a city centre that is pleasant for all users.
At present, the design of O’Connell street is acting as a barrier to the cohesion of the disparate areas of the city. It segregates the city in such an effective manner that many people don’t realise just how large the impact it has on the city is. O’Connell street’s greatest failure is that the street is seen as just a street and not the civic centre of our city. Apart from the St. Patrick’s day parades, the street is not used by the city as anything other than for traffic. The Munster matches on the big screen showed that it is a significant space that can be used for other purposes.
The obvious counterpoint to this is that there is a reason the cars need to use O’Connell street. It is easy to see that car-free redevelopment of O’Connell street will have costs for other parts of the city, whether it is increased traffic on the inner orbital route or through Thomondgate, or a two way Henry street. The question is how can these issues be resolved while also redeveloping O’Connell street. Any redevelopment will need to address these concerns in addition to the new design of the street itself. For example, while a two way Henry street would ease pressure on O’Connell street, it could have the impact of making Arthur’s Quay park even more removed from the city centre. Any redevelopment will need to consider how we can utilise O’Connell street to ensure effective connectivity between the Market Quarter and Arthur’s Quay Park and between Thomas street and the Quays.
Any redevelopment also needs to acknowledge that restricting cars alone will not be enough, we need proper investment in the streetscape of the street. The street needs to encourage people to interact with each other, it needs to be a place people want to congregate and enjoy, and not simply pass through.
The most recent data from the CSO show that while Limerick and the Midwest overall is bouncing back from the worst effects of the recession, Limerick City Centre remains an unemployment blackspot (or several individual unemployment blackspots if you prefer). While there are numerous reasons for the unemployment blackspots, one driver must be the fact that the very core of the city is not considered a pleasant place to live. In time, a properly redeveloped O’Connell street will be good for the city centre, and ultimately, the more attractive that Limerick City centre is, the more attractive the overall city and county will be. It is perhaps a small step towards the revitalisation the city needs, but a crucial one.