Voting for a directly elected Mayor

In some respects the most important vote in Limerick this Friday isn’t about which councillors are returned, but rather whether Limerick will opt for a directly elected Mayor. The campaign hasn’t gained traction partially because the concept of what a modern mayor can be has not fully been debated in Limerick. The Office is currently highly ceremonial. Under the new proposals, the office would be revolutionised from a ceremonial position to an executive one. Currently the mayor is an ambassador the city, under the new proposals the mayor could be both an ambassador and an advocate for the city.

Both mayors this year, Daniel Butler and James Collins, have been excellent representatives for the city. Both have been highly visible and are committed to the city and the region, both have been excellent ambassadors for the city. It is, however, hard for either to fully be an advocate for the city when they know their tenure is limited by such a short duration. This duration prevents either Mayor from really setting out a programme for works. It is not feasible or possible to propose, plan, finance and complete a large project in 12 months. It is also not possible to achieve same on a part-time basis. Limerick is a city on the cusp of reinvention, however, it has been at the cusp for several years now. We need a mayor who will set out a vision and be given the tools to realise it. A mayor who goes to the electorate with a set of proposals for the city allows all of Limerick’s citizens a say in how the city should develop.

When it comes to having a mayor as an advocate and an ambassador it is important to place Limerick in its national and international context. We are a regional city in a centralised country. None of the regional Irish cities are comparable with the dominance Dublin exerts over the country. Added to that, we a comparatively small city in a European context. To fight our corner in such contexts, we need a strong advocate for the city. We need a mayor who goes beyond the ceremonial aspects of the role.

The recession of 2009 showed how desperately vulnerable the entire midwest is to external economic shocks. The unemployment figure in Limerick city and county reached an extraordinary 46,830 people out of a population of 192,000 people. These figures go some way to convey the devastation that the Midwest suffered. Limerick was not unique in this however, regions all across the European Union are struggling as more and more employment is concentrated on larger cities. We are witnessing an internal mass migration across the European Union from the regions to the larger cities, with the regions being depopulated. Regional cities across the continent are facing into a transformative period. We need a mayor who understands and is willing to embrace this challenge. Limerick needs to adapt, and it needs a plan to do so.

The story since the crash in Limerick is one of resilience and resurgence, and one every Limerick citizen should be proud of. We could characterise it as Limerick’s Ardú, or rise. The Government too, and the Council deserve massive credit for Limerick’s Ardú since 2009. The number of people unemployed has dropped below 15,000 people for the first time since economic crisis. Comparatively, we are a region in recovery. This recovery is partially based on massive inward investment from multi-national corporations and the growth of third level institutions in Limerick. The next stage has to making sure this recovery has deep roots and we do not face a crisis of 2009/2010 again. In order to do so, we need someone in our corner who is unashamedly fighting for our interests. A person who is willing and able to champion the best of Limerick while addressing our challenges.

We need an advocate who will fight for investment in Limerick’s hospitals, schools, colleges and transport. Recent figures from Dr Gerry Burke (Clinical Director for Maternal and Child Health, UL Hospitals Group) showed that Limerick’s health services are under-resourced compared to the national average. Figures from the CSO show that 18 out of the worst 79 unemployment blackspots nationally are in Limerick. We are experiencing a Ardú but we still have a distance to travel to make everyone feel the effects of the resurgence. While a mayor can’t change that, they can advocate for all Limerick citizens to ensure they are fairly represented on a national level.

We face the twin challenges of ensuring that the resurgence is evenly spread, and that we have a strong voice for the entire region. The Mayor of Limerick can be an advocate as well as an ambassador for the city. They can set out a proper vision for social housing, for civic facilities and the city’s future development. On a national  and international platform they can advocate for proper investment in the region. They can represent the best of the city to show that Limerick is a progressive, modern city while ensuring all parts of Limerick are benefitting from the resurgence, that the Ardú Limerick is experiencing is just at its beginning, and the right person can transform Limerick into the city we know it can be.

 

Avoiding past mistakes in social housing in Limerick

We are in the midst of a national housing crisis, and a part of this crisis is the provision of social housing. It is a divisive issue, but a vital one. Limerick city, perhaps moreso than any city in Ireland, understands the cost of getting social housing wrong. Limerick city has spent several decades paying the cost of failed policies. There is no doubt that Limerick city needs more social housing. There in no doubt that the local authorities are best placed to provide much needed social housing. That is precisely why we need to get the next phase of social housing right. Every proposed social housing development in Limerick needs to demonstrate that the city has learned from past mistakes.

The most significant of the current social housing developments proposed by the Council is the provision of new social housing at Clonmacken. The Council has opened the tender process for the housing development in Clonmacken. The initial tender is for 43 housing units at a cost of €7,000,000. As such, the council wants each housing unit to be built for, on average, €162,791. While this is a considerable sum of money, it is considerably less than the average cost of providing a housing unit elsewhere in the country. In Dublin it costs on average €330,000  to build a social housing unit. In both cities, the cost of land is not included as it is on council owned property. The reasons for this wide discrepancy is not clear. While it is possible that construction costs could be lower in Limerick, it is extremely unlikely that they are half that of the cost of building in Dublin. Is it realistic to provide high quality housing at a low price, and not fall into the traps that previous estates have fallen into?

The €7,000,000 earmarked for this development could be better spent, and have a greater immediate impact, if it was spent refurbishing existing housing stock. It is considerably more cost efficient to refurbish existing housing stock. From the link we can see figures for  Cork in 2016 “show the average cost of refurbishing a vacant house was €13,453. In the same year, the average turnaround time was 16.78 weeks”. Financially it is clear that the refurbishment of existing non-utilised stock is a better return for the city. Any tender process should seek the best price, but the best price should be the best realistic price, and the council should be asked to provide the calculations behind the figures. It is difficult to see why the Council is engaging in large scale building when there is greater value in refurbishing properties it has already built. 

Additionally, as Nigel Dugdale’s work in respect of Johnsgate shows, the city has a problem maintaining smaller developments, in addition to the larger estates such as St. Mary’s Park. The city council should demonstrate it can handle these issues prior to engaging in further large scale building. We run a very real risk that we are repeating the same series and sequence of mistakes in Clonmacken.

It is easy to present these arguments on a purely financial basis, but behind every figure we need to consider the human cost of getting this project wrong. There are currently at least 207 council houses lying empty and in need of refurbishment, and 2,725 people waiting on the list of housing. Every empty house is a missed chance to change someone’s life by providing them with secure, high quality housing. 

We need to examine if Clonmacken is an appropriate location for large scale social housing. The difficulties presented by other council estates in Limerick city are well known. In a recent article, the Irish Times highlighted how St. Mary’s Park continues to be amongst the most deprived areas in Ireland. This article identified the following issues as part of the causes for the problems in the St. Mary’s Park council housing amongst others, a lack of amenities in a peripheral location with only one access road. The same factors are present in the Clonmacken development. The council need to elaborate on the amenities they intend to provide in Clonmacken and provide for these in advance of any building completion. We are running a very real risk of building the exact same problems into this new estate as we built into the previous estates. The council also need explain why an isolated area with no facilities has been chosen for such a development, ahead of areas closer to existing facilities.

The Council isn’t just providing housing, it is building homes. It is building places where people will live their lives and raise their families. The local authorities are best placed to provide high quality, secure housing for people in need of it but with this comes the responsibility for getting it right, every time. At its best, these houses are the building blocks of communities. It is absolutely vital we get these decisions right before the homes are built, rather than reliving the failures of past developments, where the human cost, the ultimate cost of this project, was shockingly high in terms of damaged lives, high unemployment, high suicide rates, high crime rates. Every person in Limerick deserves to know if the Council has learned from past mistakes.

 

Time for a Treaty City Greenway

In Limerick city we have the good fortune to be able to build an urban greenway throughout our city along one of the most scenic rivers in Ireland. This greenway could be developed along with the improvements to the flood defences throughout the city. The Council should commission a feasibility study into the provision such an amenity. By way of comparison, the Westport to Achill Greenway has been an extraordinary success. In its first year it attracted 80,000 visitors who spent €7 million euro in the region. The greenway cost about €7.6 million and the county has seen an immediate return on this investment. In addition to paying for itself,  the Westport greenway has created more than 200 jobs in the area. The time is right for Limerick to look at developing a greenway. Nigel Dugdale, writing in the Limerick Leader mapped out a potential path for such a greenway in Limerick. This potential Treaty City Greenway would be unique in Ireland.

In Waterford, the recent development of the Deise Greenway, from Waterford to Dungarvan, has seen over 250,000 visitors in 2017. A detailed analysis of the greenway users shows it is benefit both to locals and to tourists. These are significant figures, not least because Waterford has had to deal with many of the same issues Limerick has faced over the last two decades in terms of urban regeneration and unemployment. The Deise greenway is both a driver of community engagement and economic activity. It is used by both locals and tourists in significant numbers.

The recent surge in domestic tourists to Limerick shows that Limerick’s tourist strategy is working. The city is developing a tourist trade but we still lag significantly behind our neighbours in Kerry, and Clare, and are the nearest city, Galway. In urban terms Limerick still lags behind other Irish cities for domestic tourism. The below table shows the significant between tourist figures for Limerick compared to other Irish cities. Limerick is 100km from both Cork and Galway and yet has barely 30% of the number of domestic tourists of either city.

City Numbers
Dublin 1,497,000
Cork 1,113,000
Galway 1,024,000
Waterford 327,000
Limerick 284,000

The above figure is actually a significant improvement. Limerick recorded the biggest rate of increase in the number of domestic trips last year — up 73,000 to 284,000 — an annual increase of almost 35%. When seen in such stark figures it is clear that Limerick is not realising the fantastic potential the city has. A greenway along the rivers in the city would enhance the tourist experience in the city. Crucially, the greenway could eventually link up with the Great Southern Greenway, which connects Limerick to Kerry.

IMG_1501.jpg
River in Corbally

Crucially, a greenway could also connect the communities of Mungret, Parteen, Westbury, Castletroy and Annacotty to the city in a way that completely avoids the need for cyclists and pedestrians to share the road with drivers. We could run a cycleway from Mungret to the city centre without having to interact with the Dock road. This would be an extraordinary scenic way to enter the city, via the Clondrinagh bank and Spillane’s Tower.

IMG_2913.jpgLikewise, a cycleway through Clonmacken could connect the city to Bunratty via Coonagh without having to interact with the N18.

The work the council have undertaken to connect the University of Limerick to the city centre via the remodelled Park canal river path needs to be recognised and praised. It has been a fantastic development. This project would serve to extend this excellent work to other areas of the city. It would help develop the tourist business in the city. It would improve the amenities available to Limerick citizens. In terms of costs, we can see that successful greenways cover their costs in terms of return of investments to their region.

IMG_2895.jpg
River in Clondrinagh by the Dock Road

In time, the Treaty City Greenway could link up with the other greenways that are currently being proposed.

The council should commission a feasibility study into the possibility of integrating a cycleway to the river banks in the city. Limerick city is improving month to month. This Treaty City Greenway could be another step towards developing Limerick into the city we know it can be, for both local citizens and tourists.

IMG_3386.jpg

Developing a riverside city

A perennial issue for Limerick city is how to interact with the Shannon river in a way that protects the river, promotes healthy and safe activities and also protects the city from the risk of flooding that the Shannon presents. While on the face of it these may seem like competing challenges, they also present an extraordinary opportunity for the city. Rather than trying to work out how these interests compete, we should work towards seeing how they can complement each other. Limerick city could be a city with a riverside park running right through it, from Parteen, along the Longpavement, by the Sandy Bank in Corbally, by Clondrinagh and Mungret on the south of the river and by Westfields, Clonmacken and Coonagh on the west of the river. This would be an ambitious plan, but we are an ambitious city and we are able to realise such a project.

In some respects we can learn from approaches taken in other countries. In Australia, for example, the following is given as the various parkland functions that must be considered during all stages of parkland provision include:

  • Sport and recreation: providing for a range of formal (organised sport and structured activity) and informal (exercise, play and socialising) recreation activities;
  • Culture and heritage: preserving places with significant heritage or cultural connections;
  • Environmental conservation: protecting wildlife habitat and maintaining ecological linkages;
  • Landscape and buffer zones: enhancing the visual appeal of urban landscapes, providing green buffers and softening of the built environment;
  • Physical linkages: linking larger areas of open space, natural features and community facilities through walkable corridors and greenways;
  • Environmental quality: ameliorating the impact of urban heat island effect and improving air quality; and
  • Water quality: filtering stormwater and run-off and providing buffer zones for watercourses and wetlands.

Each of the above can be achieved in Limerick, and we can have a city that grows to be the modern city we want Limerick to be. In it is clear that the bigger you want a city to be, the more important the places you don’t build on become. Limerick city is envisaged to grow to between 200,000 and 300,000 people in the coming years. Such growth would radically transform the city but if we are to achieve it, we need to think coherently about how we will structure such growth and what amenities we will provide. The bigger the population, the greater the risk for urban sprawl, for encroachment on green spaces, for exhausting the already existing services. As well as planning where to build, the city needs to decide where it won’t build, and how it will build in a sustainable fashion. These concerns must be addressed if we are to avoid the mistakes that were made in previous developments of Limerick city.

IMG_2895
From Clondrinagh to Clonmacken

Limerick city council are to be commended for the ongoing works they have undertaken to improve the footpaths, cycle paths and walkways by the river. The path connecting the city to the University of Limerick and the improvements to the parklands at Westfields have opened these routes to everyone from Limerick to enjoy. These walkways also remind us just how beautiful the river running through Limerick, and the habitats along the riverbank are. When we see these developments it’s hard not to envisage a time when the river and riverbanks from Ardnacrusha to Mungret and Coonagh will all be connected by parkland, with walkways and cyclepaths for everyone to enjoy. However, for this parkland to become a reality, we need the same leadership the city council has shown to date to develop a plan to achieve this goal.

This parkland would have the twin benefit of allowing for periodic flooding of the river without risking property damage and expensive flood defences. We should develop parkland that can be flooded as necessary, to prevent flooding at areas of the city where housing and commercial stock already exists. The city, and the river in general, has become more prone to flood events, as we deal with decades of poor management verging on systemic neglect. Such parkland has been successfully developed elsewhere and provides both an amenity for the city and a bulwark against devastating, periodic flooding.

IMG_2912

Individual plans that can be integrated into a coherent whole should be developed for each stretch of the river. The council have delivered, and are delivering, on excellent amenities in Mungret, in addition to the works carried out by the Park Canal and works on Westfields to date.

With this in goal in mind, it is crucial that the proposed housing development in Clonmacken does not occur. As a stand alone development it is further urban sprawl on the edge of a special area of conservation. It is on a site that has already partially flooded in recent years, and it is not suitable for housing in any form. The city council could use this land to facilitate an expansion of westfields park. The city has made great leaps forward in the last number of years and we should be ambitious for what we can achieve as a city. By adopting a long term project to develop a riverside park that stretches for miles either side of the city we would be creating something unique for the city, and something that all Limerick people could enjoy. We would also be future proofing ourselves against the risks of flooding. There are significant benefits to the city from developing a park in a manner that were in to flood it need not be devastating. The Trust for Public Land in America has been working on these solutions and have shown the benefits to cities who adopt this approach.

We can envisage a Limerick city where the river and parkland are blended into the city, where the beauty of the river could be enjoyed by all. Where a runner or walker, couples and families could enjoy the extraordinary beauty at our doorstep. We can plan for a future where tourists coming into the city could enter beside miles of riverside parks, where people could cycle with ease from the city centre to Bunratty and onwards towards the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher, and out towards the estuary and Kerry on the other. We have the ability to achieve this, our city council have shown they can deliver on high level park projects. We need the leadership to see how a city, riverside and river can blend into a coherent ecosystem.

IMG_2893

Developing the Market Quarter (1)

There is a new vibrancy in Limerick City centre. The streets are busier, new bars and restaurants are opening, people are even back swimming in the river. We are at point in Limerick where we can again start planning and building a city centre around what is the very best of Limerick life. A city isn’t any one experience, at their best they are a fabric of integrated spaces between commercial spaces, recreational spaces, cultural amenities and residential areas. Limerick has the raw materials and the potential to offer all of these to a high standard but it will always struggle to do so until proper plans are put in place to develop each part of the above fabric.  The cultural core of the city could be constructed around the Milk Market, the so-called Market quarter.

The Milk Market was redeveloped and reopened to the public in June 2010. Since then it has taken its place as one of the premier markets in the country, it has won architectural awards, it has hosted concerts and operas and slowly but surely given rise to the idea of a Market Quarter in Limerick. Through all these events, the Milk Market is one of the most successful additions to Limerick’s social fabric and the Market Quarter is the main area of night life in the city.

The council should grasp the opportunity to commission a master plan for the Market Quarter. For all the strength of the Milk Market and the nightlife in the Market Quarter, we need to focus on what the Milk Market could be if further amenities could be provided. We need to learn from what works elsewhere, and what we can develop as unique to Limerick. Taking the Market quarter to be the area bounded by the following streets, Patrick’s Street, Cruises street, Denmark street, Ellen Street, Carr Street, Robert Street, Mungret Street, High and John streets it has the potential to be the core of Limerick’s city centre. The Milk Market has the capacity to be the beating heart of Limerick’s revival, but only if a plan is made and followed. When we think of what we want the city to be, how do we get there from here? How do we design a place that isn’t just the heart of Limerick city but also at the heart of the Midwest of Ireland? If we were to design such a place, what facilities would it have? If not the Market Quarter, where should we provide spaces for our entire community to come together? How should the Opera Centre integrate into the Market Quarter?

The Market Quarter is a ten minute walk from King John’s castle, it is a ten minute walk from the Market’s Field. It is a  thirty minute walk from Thomond Park and the Gaelic Grounds. It is 2.5 kilometres from Mary Immaculate College, 4 kilometres from Limerick Institute of Technology, 4.5 kilometres from the University of Limerick. It is a 35 minute drive from Ennis and from Nenagh, it is a 40 minute drive from Newcastle West. More-so than just the city, it can be the very heart of the region if we have the vision to develop it as such.

The relative lack of development in the streets around the Market Quarter is actually an opportunity to create a unified vision of what that Quarter should be. It is arguable that the Cornmarket building was a missed opportunity to develop this area some two decades ago, we need to be careful to not make the same mistakes. The City Council should begin the planning process to develop new amenities within the Market Quarter such as a new Civic Museum, a new art gallery, a multi-purpose cultural centre (a cinema/theatre/event space) and set the standard that when these buildings are built they themselves inspire civic pride, that the Market Quarter is a place known through out Ireland as a place to visit. The Market Quarter has excellent cultural facilities in spaces such as the Hunt Museum and Ormston House.

The city has the chance to develop the Market Quarter into a leading shopping, social and cultural district outside of Dublin, if it has the vision to grasp the opportunity afforded to it. The lack of development of the Opera Centre is actually a vital chance for the city to get things right. Whatever is built there should meet the following criteria. It should be mixed use. It should ensure that  Patrick Street, Ellen Street and Robert Street result in proper interaction on street level. Too often large developments in Limerick have resulted into one facade of the building being effectively dead space on for the public. Ellen street and Robert street should converge into a public space with a square or plaza. Ideally this space would be used as an expansion space for the Market and for civic purposes.

When we look at the other vacant sites around the Market Quarter, we need to see them as opportunities to make the city something better. We need to think what is the next part of the puzzle that helps Limerick improve. We are at the edge of a fantastic opportunity, if we can take it. Limerick City Council has been taking brave steps to rebuild and reimagine Limerick City, now is the time to take another one and set out what we want our city centre to be and to build it around the Market Quarter.

When we think of the amenities that Limerick city currently lacks, we should see the Market Quarter as their natural development space. An area of the city where the city can come together to celebrate itself.

IMG_2835

Speed Limits through Westfields Park

Limerick City Council have made a huge and successful effort at improving the quality of parks in Limerick over the last decade. The work on the walkways out to the University and through Westfields have added to and improved amenities that the entire city can enjoy. It is somewhat surprising then, that there are plans to increase the speed limit through Westfields Park. The Condell Road bisects one of the most important parks on the Northside of the city. As with any proposal that affects the city, the benefits of the proposal should be weighed against the costs of the proposal.

The benefits are fairly tangible, a driver will save circa one minute traversing the 2.5km of road through the park. This is on clear roads with no traffic. The costs are fairly intangible. The road will be less safe for cyclists and pedestrians and the park itself will be less pleasant. We can say for certain that there will be an increase in accidents. It has been shown in repeated studies that increasing speeds causes an increase in accidents. Based on work by Nilsson in Sweden, a change in average speed of 1 km/h will result in a change in accident numbers by 4% for a 50 km/h road.

Similarly in the UK, based on empirical studies by Taylor, where changes in accident numbers associated with a 1 km/h change in speed have been shown to vary between 1% and 4% for urban roads and 2.5% and 5.5% for rural roads, with the lower value reflecting good quality roads and the higher value poorer quality roads.

The science is clear then, increasing speeds increases the likelihood of accidents. While this unfortunate truth needs to be weighed up with any speed limit increase, it is conceivable that a benefit of an increased speed could be such as to justify the subsequent increase in accidents. Is the speed limit through the park such a circumstance?  Is a benefit of a minute per driver enough to justify the increased risk of accidents in a park used by cyclists and pedestrians.

To place this argument in context, it is useful to consider the impact of accidents at the various speed limits. The European Commission studies make it clear. “Pedestrians, cyclists and moped riders have a large risk of severe injury when colliding with a motor vehicle. The difference in mass is huge and the collision energy is mainly absorbed by the lighter ‘object’. In addition, pedestrians, cyclists and moped riders are completely unprotected: no iron framework, no seatbelts, and no airbags to absorb part of the energy. For a collision between a car and a pedestrian, the following relationship between speed and survival chance was established Ashton and Mackay (1979)”

Car Speed % fatally injured pedestrians
32 km/h 5
48 km/h 45
64 km/h 85

It is worth reflecting on the devastating impact a collision at 64 km per hour has on a vulnerable road user. It is fatal in 85% of incidents. Again, is this the risk that users of the park should be subject to? Even at the current 50km per hour, the consequences of an accident are stark, with a 45% fatality rate.

It is also important to note that driving is a skill where studies show people display a tendency to over-estimate their abilities. Drivers, as a general rule, are not accurate at self assessing their driving abilities. It is possible that many accidents don’t just occur because of bad driving, they occur because people over-estimate their ability which leads to complacency and bad driving.

These studies clearly highlight just how dangerous high speeds are to vulnerable road users. With that in mind, it is important to note that it is for these reasons we prohibit cycling on motorways, likewise, it is why we restrict speed limits in urban areas. While these points are obvious they don’t seem to be prevalent in the debate about the speed limit through the park. We need to have a serious conversation about how safe we want all users of Westfields Park to be, and if the benefits outweigh the risks.

Upgrading Limerick’s Riverwalks

When we talk about a livable city, when we talk about how we want Limerick to be in twenty years time, there is broad agreement that we want to make the city centre a more pleasant place to live. Limerick city centre does not currently make the most of two important aspects of the city. One, of course, is the river, but another, not so often discussed, is the Special Areas of Conservation that lie in close proximity to the city centre. These nature reserves at Westfields and Corbally are areas of tranquility very close to the city centre. Along with the Park Canal walk out to the University of Limerick, these areas have the potential to transform how we see the city.

Limerick city is lucky to have Special Areas of Conservation close to our city centre. We have a city criss-crossed with wildlife reserves and parkland. The council has recently focused on upgrading the cycle and footpaths through Westfields and along the Park canal and out to the University of Limerick. Both projects have been a considerable success and the Council should be commended for the work that has been accomplished to date. Ideally a similar focus could be turned towards providing similar amenities around King’s Island and Corbally. In Limerick we should always consider that we live at the edge of the Shannon estuary and our city is surrounded by areas of tremendous natural beauty.

There is another reason to upgrade these facilities. In 2014 the flood protections around King’s Island failed and caused significant flooding on the Island field. While the council are currently completing repair work by Verdant Crescent, it is clear that at some point in the near future more extensive repair work will be required to the various floodwalls  not just around King’s Island, but also around Corbally. Ideally these flood protections would also have the benefit of improving the current pathways around the city’s rivers.  Is it possible to increase the city’s flood protections while simultaneously increasing the amenities available to the city? As a result of recent flooding along the entire Shannon, the city needs to make sure it is prepared for any future floods.

We should not see the 2014 flood in isolation. The Shannon river has always flooded. Its origin myth expressly warns us that it is a river prone to flooding*. In recent years flooding has been a growing issue all along the Shannon, partly due to climate change and partly due to unsuitable building in areas that were traditionally reserved as floodplains for the river.

Repairing the flood defences is obviously a costly exercise and one that requires significant planning. One factor that should be considered when the flood protections are repaired is to extend beyond the current flood walls but rather turn them into amenities in their own right. Every flood wall could incorporate a cycle-track and a footpath to increase and promote the number of river walks in the city. These paths would open these areas while also serving to protect them from future flooding.

To take the example of the Salmon-wier/Sandy path in Corbally. The Salmon-weir/Sandy path along the Abbey river and onto the Shannon river is an incredible amenity to have so close to the city. This path runs from O’Dwyer bridge around the Lax weir. On one side of the path is a river while on the other is a large nature reserve. It is a shame to see it atrophy to the point where it is only usable when walked in single file and wholly unsuitable for cyclists or people with buggys. It is so hidden away that many people in the city seem to forget about its presence. While this adds a sense of tranquility to the path, it also means that many, perhaps even most, of the people of Limerick can’t enjoy it.

IMG_1499IMG_1501

The path itself is a state of poor repair, with its surface too uneven to be a pleasant cycle. When the flood wall is repaired, the repairs should allow the path to be accessible for all users, and ideally would allow for access to the river to boats, fishermen, swimmers and kayakers. Currently bright blue kingfishers are nesting near the red path in Corbally, the area is a vital wildlife reserve and bird sanctuary and any development should be sensitive to the wildlife living there. It shouldn’t be an either/or debate between those who wish to preserve it and those who wish to utilise it.

An unusual feature of the Salmonwier path is that all the public seats face away from the river, which is understandable when you consider that across from the path was formerly the city dump at Longpavement. The dump closed in 2002 but long awaited plans for its redevelopment stalled during the financial crisis. In that respect it’s not surprising the path has been neglected, its proximity to the city dump would have impeded its popularity.

IMG_1502
Thomond Park in the distance

IMG_1505

We should be seeking to develop a walking and cycle trail the allows everyone in the city appreciate how fortunate the city is to have wildlife reserves so close to the city centre. This path, which joins the red path at the Lax weir (a 12th century weir across the Shannon mentioned in Charters that pre-date the Magna Carta) has the potential to be a significant amenity for the city, and would complement the Westfields and UL paths. As mentioned, Limerick city centre is nestled in amongst areas of natural beauty, it should be open to all to appreciate it.

Over the last decade, the Council have made a serious and determined effort to rebuild and repair the river paths through Westfields park, along the boardwalks and most recently, out the Park Canal and along the river to the University of Limerick. Each of these projects allow users enjoy pleasant walks through nature reserves and along the river. It is easy to envisage a time when the path around Corbally and King’s Island is accessible to everyone, and for the benefit of everyone.

 

 

*Two separate origin myths allude to flooding.

Legend has it that Síonnan, ,the daughter of Lodan (a son of the Celtic God of the Sea, Lír), came to the Shannon Pot in search of the great Salmon of Wisdom. The great salmon was angered at the sight of Síonnan and caused the pool to overflow and drown the maiden. Thus the Shannon was created and still bears her name today.”

and another

“According to the Dinnsenchas, Luimnech is so named from a contest which took place there between two swineherd champions, who were brothers named Rind and Foebur, sons of Smucall, in the employment of Bodb of Sid Femin, the fairy King of Munster, and Ocaill of Sid Cruschan, the fairy King of Connacht. The assembly which has come from the south and north were so engaged in admiring the feats of the champions, that the tide carried off their shields which they had left on the strand. So looking from Tul Tuinne,a hill beside Lough Derg, they exclaimed, “is luimnechda in t-inbuir?” – “the inver is full of shields”. So the inver was named Luimneach.” (Inver in an anglicisation of the Irish for estuary).

 

 

 

 

 

Time to Re-open the Corbally Baths?

In any discussion on what extra amenities Limerick city should have, one that is frequently overlooked is a safe place for open-water swimming near the city centre. It is an unusual situation that a city with a river running through it doesn’t provide a safe place to swim in the city environs. Limerick city used to have such a facility in the Corbally baths, but they have been closed and allow fall into disrepair. It is time for the Council to adopt an action plan for this facility. As the Council works to the improve the amenities available, one simple measure would be to restore the baths to their previous standard.

Open water swimming is perhaps unusual in that the practitioners don’t require a wide range of facilities, what they do require is the assurance that the water they will swim in is safe. At a push, they like a point with an ease of access to and egress from the water. While it is easy to imagine a vastly updated Baths, it is certainly arguable that many open water swimmers would just like the vegetation scaled back and an assurance that the water quality has improved.

The decline of open water swimming in Limerick can be tied to the decline in water quality in the Shannon river from the 1960’s on. Emma Gileece, an Architectural Historian from Limerick has written about the decline of Ireland’s Public baths, including those at Corbally. We have allowed a significant number of public baths fall into a state of disrepair despite the fact that open water swimming has been increasing year on year. There is a large community of open water swimmers across Ireland and Limerick is no exception.

The Corbally baths opened to the Limerick public in 1947. On their 70th anniversary it would be an apt time for the city council to announce the long awaited restoration plans. In their heyday in the 1950’s and 1960’s the baths were a well used and much loved facility. The decline of the baths, and the failure to replace them with modern open water facilities, has the affect that people are unsure where is safe to swim in the city. It has also removed a key social activity in city life.

IMG_1514
Last update, 1 month before the main drainage came on stream

Up until the completion of the main drainage, a staggering 4 million gallons of wastewater was discharged daily into the Shannon and Abbey rivers from more than 50 outfalls. The impact of this wastewater was to render the river unsafe for swimming, and had a significant impact on the environment of the river.

The main drainage project was completed in May 2004 and the water quality of the river has improved significantly since then. Somewhat strangely, it was in April 2004 that Limerick City Council last updated the public on the water quality of the water in the baths. It is unfortunate that in the intervening years, no update has been provided as to the water quality in the Corbally baths.

The action plan for the baths should be multiphase. As a first step, the Council should test the water quality to ensure it is safe for swimming. As a second step, the Council should ensure that there is safe access to and egress from the water, along with the removal of reeds and any hidden impediments to swimming that might cause swimmers to get tangled or injured in the water. A third phase could be the upgrading of the facilities themselves. These upgrades could be minimal or a complete redesign, depending on the nature and needs of the users.

IMG_1515
Current access point

In recent years, more and more activity has returned to the river, with the revival of the annual Thomond Swim through Limerick city centre and the provision of sailing and kayaking on the river by both Get West and Nevsail watersports. These activities are possible because of the success of the main drainage project. It has been a tremendous success and one the City Council should take credit for. It is time for the City Council to take another step and refurbish the Corbally baths. The Baths themselves are only 3 kilometres from the city centre and are an ideal amenity for the entire city to benefit from.

IMG_1517
Open water

The Thomond swim and the Castleconnell triathlon has shown that people want to swim in the river, it is up to the City Council to ensure that they are given the facilities to do so. Even allowing for the health benefits of open water swimming, providing a safe bathing place would allow Limerick people reconnect with the river in a fundamental way. If nothing else, the Corbally Baths are a serene and peaceful point on the river, and one that should be made as open as possible.

In order to fully appreciate the amenity that the river can be to the city, people have to be able to interact with it in a safe manner. When we talk about improving Limerick city, it needn’t be large projects. Small projects that promote increased interaction amongst communities can have the impact of making an entire city a more pleasant place to live.

IMG_1518

 

Re-imagining O’Connell street

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.

great-limerick-run-2016-4
(Image copyright Great Limerick Run)

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.

Oregon beautiful picture
(Image copyright of Limericks Life)

An Interpretative Centre for the Shannon River?

We often hear that Limerick city does not make enough effort to interact with the river Shannon but we rarely hear how Limerick people could interact with the river. The city council have been improving access to the river. In addition to the boardwalks in the city, they have improved the walkways out to the University of Limerick and through Westfields Park. The main drainage has improved the water quality to the point where it is safe to swim in the river again. The next step in this itinerary should be ambitious. The next step should further facilitate the interaction between the city and the river. It should be to build an interpretative centre for the Shannon river in Limerick city.

Limerick is where the river begins to meet the ocean and Limerick developed where it is because it is the first safe fording point on the river that seafarers would have encountered. The story of Limerick is only one part of the story of the Shannon but it is the ideal place to recount the entire story of the Shannon.

IMG_0266People in Limerick often marvel at the majesty of the river as it flows through the city but do we really know enough about the river, its role in our history, its role in our environments? This is a facility that would benefit the entire island, but particularly would benefit Limerick.

The river Shannon is part of the great circulation system of Ireland. It is the largest river in Ireland and Britain. It flows through or by 11 counties,* and countless smaller rivers and lakes feed into it. It is the backbone of the ancient paths through Ireland, and it is dotted with pilgrimage sites from the Estuary river up to Cuilcagh Mountain in Cavan, from Scattery Island to the mythical Connla’s well, passing Clonmacnoise by Snámh Dá Éan. The Shannon has supported both settlement and invasion. The history of Ireland, in part, formed around the river.

P102024820170503221243

It is time that an interpretative centre for the Shannon river was built in Limerick city. Why interpret the Shannon river? What would it even mean to interpret a river? The Hicira handbook, relating to interpretation centres sets out the following definition.

“Interpretation is a tool which serves to bring the visitor into closer contact with heritage. It employs a code which is understandable to visitors to enable them to connect with their heritage and the setting and to experience and understand what they are seeing. Interpretation involves much more than mere transmission of knowledge and facts, one of the main objectives being to provoke perceptions leading to new sensations.”

Applying this to the Shannon river, we should seek to provide an interpretive centre for the river. We should be able to study the ecology and the geography of the river, we should be able to interact with the history and the mythology of the river. We should be able to see how the river affects our agriculture and our climate. This facility would not just be for tourists, but rather should be an educational facility that schools students from all over Ireland can come to and learn about Irish history in an interactive and engaging manner.

20170503221240

This facility should be built with access to the river, where visitors to the centre could interact with the river. Ideally, if such a site could be located, it should be built in proximity to where Limerick city was first built, on King’s Island. This would have the advantage of regenerating an area in need of investment, it would provide further facilities for visitors to the island. To place it in context, Athlunkard street derives its name from the phrase Áth Longphuirt, meaning “ford of the longphort,” referring to a 9th-century Viking longphort (defended ship encampment) once located at that ford over the Shannon. It would be a fitting point from which to examine the relationship between Limerick city and the river.The facility should seek to preserve the history of the Abbey fishermen, their culture and boats, and how the community in Limerick interacted with communities along the river.

In addition to the efforts made by the city council, it has been brilliant to see the success of both Nevsail Water Sports and Get West tours on the river. These experiences allow people see the river from a different perspective and show that the river can be a tourist attraction to interact with as opposed to just admire.

The facility should take its lead from the excellent programme that Nevsail Kayak Tours have been developing with the Hunt museum. Nevsail have developed an activity along with the Hunt museum whereby students get to visit the Hunt museum for a set period of time before also getting to kayak on the river. This method of teaching should be employed by any centre so that students can get an appreciation for the river itself while having fun. This all works towards increasing our awareness of the facility on our doorstep. An interpretive centre is the obvious next step in ensuring the river is fully appreciated in the city and surrounding counties.

We are continually asked to engage with the river without ever being given the opportunity to do so. A facility so this nature is the ideal way to introduce the Shannon river to citizens and visitors to the city alike.

20170503221234
Quick, Duck!

*For table quiz enthusiasts the 11 counties are Cavan, Leitrim, Longford, Roscommon, Galway, Westmeath, Offaly, Tipperary, Clare, Kerry and Limerick.