In late November Limerick City & County Council signed up to the Limerick 2030 Opera Development Finance Contract. It is an €85 million loan between the local authority and the European Investment Bank.
Securing this finance is an impressive achievement and plaudits should go to the management of Limerick City & County Council and all those who have worked to get this far. The event at City Hall at the end of November marked a major step towards the development of the ‘Opera’ site that has been more or less idle for 10 years, and also an early milestone in the work of the Limerick Twenty Thirty DAC.
At this stage it is worth standing back and assessing what Limerick Twenty Thirty DAC is all about and look at where it and our city might be headed. The company is owned by Limerick City & County Council and has been formed as a response to the report published four years ago titled Limerick 2030: An Economic & Spatial Plan for Limerick. However, it is important to acknowledge that the remit of the DAC and the recommendations of the original report are only partially aligned. This is unfortunate. As the report states, “an ambitious plan is of little use unless there is a strong commitment to deliver it”. As it stands, the objective of the DAC is to develop a number of strategic sites, and this is a very important role, but its hands are tied when it comes to properly delivering the vision that was originally set out four years ago.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, if we want Limerick to transition into a prosperous and successful mid-sized European city, capable of offering employment and a good quality of life for all its citizens, and attracting inward migration and investment, then the broad plan of Limerick Twenty Thirty is one that we should support. It is the first time since the foundation of the State that a concerted effort has been made to plan a future for the city in a better than haphazard fashion. Just as the lamentable planning of the past has led to the problems of the present, today’s good planning decisions will lead to the successes of the future. In that respect, it is important that the city gets behind Limerick Twenty Thirty. Positive engagement between the citizens of Limerick, its numerous stakeholders and those tasked with steering the Limerick Twenty Thirty DAC represents the best opportunity for it deliver on its promise.
At this juncture, Limerick City is at an important crossroads. It appears that the National Planning Framework is to set modest targets for the city’s growth and its future position within the national context. The management of the local authority, rightly, have indicated a more ambitious vision and have tasked its special purpose vehicle – the afore-mentioned Limerick Twenty Thirty DAC – with stimulating the local economy and rejuvenating the city centre. How it goes about this task will determine the kind of city that Limerick will become over the next few decades.
Option 1 versus Option 2
Broadly speaking, we are faced with two options. The first option is the easier one. It is the continued piecemeal, un-coordinated, often developer-led planning of the metropolitan area. It represents a limited ambition and therefore a limited potential. It more than likely means continued suburbanisation, low density sprawl and inordinately high levels of private car dependency and the ill-conceived infrastructural development and other long term negative consequences that go hand in hand with this development model. Ultimately this scenario means only modest economic and demographic growth and the copper-fastening of Limerick’s position as a small regional centre, indistinct from many others.
The second option is to pick up on the global trend for urbanisation and to emulate the successful and rapidly growing centres of Europe and elsewhere. It is to create a vibrant and attractive city that competes against others of its size and draws people from all over Ireland, Europe and further afield to live and work in it. It involves the masterplanning of Limerick, not the masterplanning of disconnected strategic sites, and the provision of high quality public realm throughout the city, not just on a few streets. It is the option that leads to the greatest benefit to Limerick and the Midwest Region and it ultimately gives the Midwest Region the best chance of living up to its potential as the major growth area outside of Dublin. There is no particular technical or economic challenge or risk in bringing this about. It has been done very successfully and relatively easily elsewhere in Europe. The difficulty is primarily one of leadership and vision. It involves hard, often unpopular decisions.
If we are as ambitious as we say we are then we must strive for Option 2. For it to become a reality, we must follow the high density and high quality development model that is proven to be successful internationally. That sounds straight-forward, but it also means actively resisting suburbanisation and sprawl and being more intelligent about where we place residential, commercial and industrial developments. Throughout the Metropolitan Area it means prioritising investment in sustainable transport infrastructure over infrastructure that primarily serves private vehicles.
Option 2 means not just providing cycle lanes here and there, but providing a cycle highway network to connect places of work and residential areas. It means rolling out Quality Bus Corridors on every major artery. It means doing both of the above at the expense of providing space for private cars where road space is at a premium. In the city centre, we have to accept that the very lowest value of our street space is to use it for parking or private car movements. There is no surer way to restrict the potential of the city centre for economic and demographic growth than to allow it to be dominated by private vehicles. By contrast, the highest value of our street space is to use it for people and amenities, as all the progressive mid-sized cities of Europe have shown. Ultimately it means transforming Limerick into a car free city centre. Are we up to the task?
Pursuing Option 2, quite obviously, requires a fundamental shift in how the city has been developed for the last half century, and therefore it is inevitable that this approach will meet significant resistance from many quarters. It is, nevertheless, the price of transforming Limerick into a strong and prosperous city. By grasping this nettle we can transform the city in a decade. It’s very much in our power to do so.
Recently, Limerick Twenty Thirty DAC advertised positions for financial controllers. Perhaps it will also consider hiring masterplanners and urban designers. Doing so would be an important step in the right direction, and we may see Option 2 become a reality.