Limerick City & County Council asked for views on the O’Connell Street Limerick Revitalisation Plan. Town planning is boring but it affects lots of people, so it’s important. Here’s what I sent in:

This is a submission to the request for comments on the Limerick Urban Centre Revitalisation plan for O’Connell Street, currently at Feasibility Concept Phase. As I’ve been resident in the heart of Georgian Limerick for almost two decades, I’m making this submission as a local resident. It’s a little bit critical but I suppose that’s what happens when things are put out for public consultation. Thanks for the opportunity to submit it.

For nine million euros, the emerging preferred option seems rather safe. Not only does it not re-invent the wheel, it amounts to turning the wheel a few degrees and hoping that people perceive it as a little more round. That’s disappointing. It offers a spit and shine approach to O’Connell Street when what is needed is a much more radical plan to revitalise the street and, in turn, the city centre.

In recent years, Limerick has experimented with on-street open seating in the Urban Garden area outside Penney’s (though that facility appears to have vanished in recent weeks). It’s been a mixed success. Its worth has come from being the only area on O’Connell Street that offers what planners call a respite area but having two lanes of traffic plod through Limerick next to it has meant that it remains a relatively unattractive area to spend any time. At best this new plan offers a repetition of that facility up a few city blocks. The Urban Garden has been an interesting experiment rather than a failure, but the one thing that we should have been learned from it is that people don’t like sitting in an area where hundreds of cars spew carbon monoxide at them. If there aren’t any cars driving next to them, people will use the street for more than walking through. The purpose of the project is to “improve the O’Connell Street area for retail and commercial attractiveness through enhancement of public space, streetscape and sustainable travel modes”, after all.

Copenhagen converted its main thoroughfare (Strøget) into a pedestrian-only street in 1962. Initially, almost everyone was against it but it was the single greatest factor behind the restoration of Copenhagen as an attractive place to live, work and visit. It proved such a success that surrounding streets have since pedestrianised, with the pedestrian-only area increasing from Strøget’s 15,800 square metres to 100,000 square metres. Currently, 48,000 people use Strøget on a daily basis even in winter, climbing to 80,000 people per day in summer and 120,000 in the Christmas season. It’s not alone – cities like Bordeaux and Rotterdam pedestrianised their main shopping streets in the 50s and, in Ireland, similar plans were carried out in Dublin and Galway much more recently. Pedestrianisation works. It’s been proved by example to work. It has led to the revitalisation of city centres in pretty much every city where it’s been implemented.

I realise that business-owners in Limerick city centre may be against a plan that stops traffic driving past their shopfronts. But as much of the plan involves getting rid of parking spaces along O’Connell Street, nobody will be parking on those six blocks of the street and, thus, access is pretty much as easy via every street in the city that isn’t O’Connell Street. On that note, unattractive as bollards are, the plan has too few of them. While the recent redevelopment of Catherine Street between Roches Street and Thomas Street arguably has too many bollards (37 by my count), Ireland is notorious for the “just stopping for a minute” mentality. If you’re going to eliminate parking along six city centre blocks, you’ll need 150 bollards, which is significantly more than on the current plan.

The plan offered is better than what we have – we get one lane of traffic redesignated as a bus lane and wider footpaths due to street parking being eliminated along most of the project. But with all due respect, spending nine million euros on a bus lane and getting rid of street parking is a laughable waste of money and a hilarious waste of an opportunity. There isn’t a single person on the planet who’s prudent with cash who would regard that as value for money. People laugh at the concept of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic but this plan doesn’t even do that.

At the very least, the street needs to be pedestrianised between Denmark Street and William Street, between William Street and Roches Street, and between Roches Street and Mallow Street. That’s the initial move towards making Limerick city centre attractive to residents, workers and visitors. Retaining traffic along O’Connell Street keeps the street attractive for cars, but cars are merely devices that people use to get into, out of and through the city. It’s time that Limerick city planners and councillors realised that cities need to be designed for people, not their travel boxes.

The plan from Mallow Street to the Crescent is as good as we can possibly hope for at the moment. Nobody expects that traffic can be diverted from these areas in the near future so the limited improvements from Mallow Street to Hartstonge Street are understandable and the improvements at the Crescent are very welcome.

Shared spaces and shared surface junctions are recently beloved by town planners because they look nice. They’re dangerous to fully-abled people and lethal to disbled and blind people – hardly in line with the project design objective of “creation of a new public realm that … safeguards vulnerable users”. They’re a fudge, a lazy option that appears to offer a little to everyone but doesn’t offer all that much to anyone. “Courtesy” pedestrian crossings aren’t worth a damn – for the little my opinion is worth I suggest abandoning even the hint of them.

The contra-flow bike lanes on the plans end before the street corners and, thus, appear to force bike users into the path of oncoming traffic. They’re not linked with each other on the plans and disappear between Roches Street and Denmark Street. As the project seeks the “enhancement of … sustainable travel modes” and “to promote … cycling”, on a practical level one of two things is likely to happen – either cyclists will ignore the unlinked cycle lanes as impractical or will cycle along the footpath on the remainder of the development. The cycle lane proposal is a curate’s egg – good in parts but sifting through the egg to find the good bits isn’t going to happen on a daily basis. Link them or drop them. For what it’s worth, I have a strong preference for linking and expanding them.

Much as I admire the intention to install water features and grass areas, similar features installed in recent years on Thomas Street and Bedford Row haven’t been maintained. Limerick Council is great at maintaining parks and good at maintaining pavements but, for example, there are 56 LED lighting installations in a circle at the junction of O’Connell Street and Bedford Row/Thomas Street, five of which remain working. There are 36 single-person stone seats on Bedford Row and Thomas Street, some of which have been vandalised and moved since installation, without repair, and of the (presumably) 144 LED lights that were originally installed under those seats, 24 remain working. Street installations that require regular checking and maintenance tend not to be maintained – therefore the solution appears to be to avoid installing them in future. This isn’t a negative judgment of Limerick Council – it’s just practical reality.

Thus, with all due respect, I suggest taking a hard look at the plans between William Street and Mallow Street in particular. It’s not that Limerick deserves better (though it does) – it’s that Limerick needs better. Creating a nicer street for cars to drive through isn’t what the mandate of Limerick Council is about. “Promot[ing] a sense of place” is not achieved by retaining O’Connell Street primarily as a transit road. You can pedestrianise those streets now when there’s money to do so or you can look at those areas in twenty years and bemoan that you didn’t pedestrianise them when there was free money to do so. Being handed nine million euros is an opportunity to reshape Limerick’s main thoroughfare and make it significantly more attractive as a place to spend time for people who live in Limerick, work in Limerick and visit Limerick. This plan, shiny as it is, fails to do that.

Thanks for your time.