Make our street great again

To the project team in charge of redesigning Limerick’s main street:

Please remove through traffic from O’Connell Street.

Expecting people to compete with 1 tonne+ hunks of metal dashing from one side of the city to the other is a recipe for disaster. Let’s admit that “shared space” is the “sorry/not sorry” of urban design when it facilitates traffic throughput.

Let’s be ambitious for our city centre: O’Connell Street has enough room for green spaces, playgrounds, exhibition areas, and much much more.

To attract the best to live, work and learn in our city centre requires a city centre worthy of the best.

I genuinely appreciate the effort that the project team have made to consult the public. I know we share the same hopes and dreams for our city, and I hope you can revise your plans to remove through traffic and centre our great street around our city’s most important asset: our people.

Sent as a submission to the O’Connell St project design team, 29th June 2017.

The Curious Tale of Limerick Marketing Company

IMG_2557Limerick Council announced recently that it had promoted its Communications Officer to be Head of Marketing, a pretty un-noteworthy story even by the sleepy standards of local news in a small city.

Yet the appointment marks the end of a sorry tale of money wasted, opportunities missed and the continuing damaging culture of secrecy that pervades Limerick Council.

One of the unintended consequences of Fine Gael’s commitment in 2011 to consolidate some state bodies was that it left a number of people with lucrative permanent public sector jobs needing to be redeployed. Part of Limerick Council’s response was to set up a number of companies (why the separate companies were needed was never explained: was it to support salary increases outside of the public sector pay freeze? I suspect we will never know), including the Limerick Marketing Company, which was launched with great fanfare and an announcement that the company would double visitor numbers in five years. The company’s two employees came from state agencies that were affected by Enda Kenny’s putsch on quangos.

This ‘company’ never published any details about its staff or its activities beyond a pretty bland statement of objectives on the Council’s website. Two and a half years later, due to restructuring in staff in the council, the need for the company has gone and the idea has been quietly forgotten (and presumably, the objective to double visitor numbers has died with it).

It’s difficult to criticise the marketing of Limerick that has taken place over the last three years because frankly there wasn’t that much of it. Sure there were a few articles in the local papers, which I’m sure provided gratification for the individuals involved, but there was very little national or international coverage, and so in the absence of any other evidence it seems like the objective of Limerick Marketing Company was “Let’s tell ourselves how great Limerick is, and we’ll hope someone outside the city notices”.

One of two flagship events of the Limerick Marketing Company was Riverfest, an event rightly criticised by Brian Leddin last year as an event that “reflects a city as sophisticated as a Supermacs outlet on a Saturday night”, and that was “lame and mediocre”. Brian’s full article is worth a read as he also highlights the inward looking approach to marketing our city.

The second event was acknowledged locally to be a complete disaster. The marketing company spent half of its annual budget underwriting a “rugby world club sevens” event, and a five-year contract was signed with a private company to underwrite this event. The Limerick Leader reported that the turnout was “paltry”, with only 300 people attending one of the events in Thomond Park, and a total subsidy of €200 for every ticket sold from the public purse.  The Leader termed Limerick Marketing Company’s justification for the event to be “self-serving drivel” – strong words for a local newspaper that is normally very supportive of local events.

The new marketing company was stitched in to the fifteen year socio-economic plan for Limerick (the “Limerick 2030 Plan”) – with nineteen specific actions assigned to it. Even though the marketing section of the 2030 plan was perhaps one of the weakest sections of the document (I described it as being “pretty terrible” in my submission to the plan), at least it published some initial steps that the Limerick Marketing Company could take. Out of nineteen actions I cannot find any evidence that any of them were completed, even though all actions were due to have been completed by the time the company ceased operations.

The one positive initiative that the Limerick Marketing Company was involved in was the ‘street ambassador programme’ that ran over the summer months. This wasn’t an initiative of the Company – it merely inherited responsibility for it. Once the company inherited the responsibility, it promptly scrapped the programme.

In fact there is no evidence that the company ever traded at all. The most recent returns of Limerick City & County Marketing Limited were made in April 2016, where the accounts showed no activity beyond the issuing of a share capital of €2. It was reported recently that the board of the company hasn’t met in the last two years.

It didn’t need to be like this. Between promoting a culture of openness, creativity, debate and vibrance; and targeting specific visitor niches where we can compete effectively; we really could have doubled visitor numbers in five years. Instead it feels like we will continue talking to ourselves, and the promises will continue to be forgotten.

Reinventing Limerick, Part 1

Limerick, that small city in the west of Ireland that I call home, has had somewhat of a challenging time of late.

Limerick City has always had an unemployment problem. But it’s worth restating how bad that problem is since the economic crisis hit. The last census showed Limerick City to have the highest unemployment rate (of any local authority area) in the country, at 27% (national average was 19%). The only two electoral divisions in the country where more than half the working-age population are unemployed are both in Limerick. The Central Statistics Office defines an unemployment blackspot as an area with over 35% unemployment. Six out of the seven worst unemployment blackspots in the country are in Limerick. Just under half (18 out of 36) of our electoral divisions are considered unemployment blackspots, and we have more than in Dublin City.

I could go on for paragraphs. The numbers for educational attainment and a host of other socio-economic indicators are equally dismal. Our city is dying.  Limerick is in crisis.  A crisis that is exacerbated by poor planning leading to a suburban doughnut around the city, a generally poor quality (with some honourable exceptions) of public representative (even by the somewhat dismal standards of Irish local councillors), an even poorer quality of local governmental and quasi-governmental agencies, each overlapping in remit with at least five other agencies, and a population that has, not unreasonably, given up a little hope of things being a bit better.

Of course Official Ireland’s answer to a crisis is to publish a long report, hold a snazzy launch, and hope nobody reads the thing, because while it is very important To Be Seen Doing Something, it is equally important Not To Offend Anyone By Doing Something Which Might Actually Make A Difference.  The latest example of this was the 170-page Limerick 2030: An Economic and Spatial Plan for Limerick back in June 2013.

Sadly I’m one of those nerds who actually read the whole thing, and even put in a brief submission (although by the deadline for submissions, the plan had almost completely disappeared from view on the City Council website, which should have told me all I needed to know about how seriously the Council takes the views of its citizens).  Brian Leddin posted his (much more eloquent) submission on his website so I thought I’d do the same below.

This article is a Part 1 because I’ve been thinking over the last few months about how things could be better in Limerick. I think it’s important that we don’t leave the future of our city in the hands (and half-baked ideas) of anonymous overpaid consultants.  I came across Richard Florida‘s writings some years ago and I remember that they had a certain resonance for Limerick, luckily a 20th anniversary edition of his landmark (and not uncontroversial) work Rise of the Creative Class has just been released so I’ve got a copy and plan on adding a follow on post in a few weeks to add my own humble thoughts about how Limerick can overcome its crisis and look to 2030 with confidence.

A few brief comments on the Economic and Spatial Plan for Limerick: (submitted to Limerick County Council 12th July 2013):

The whole document needs proof-reading – there are a number of typos and mistakes throughout which undermine the strategy – e.g. it’s the Logistics sector, not the Logistic sector (p 17), the M20 will go to Cork, not Tralee (and the M21 will go to Tralee, not Cork!) (p28).

More serious than that, the document suffers from a lack of structure and flow which make it difficult to navigate and digest. I appreciate that there is a lot to cover in this Strategy, and multiple revisions and authors can militate against coherency. The Strategy jumps all over the place, there is excessive verbiage in some areas, the same points are repeated throughout the text, and the Strategy could greatly benefit from a comprehensive rewrite. The success or failure of this document will depend in part on the degree to which it is adopted by the key stakeholders involved, and a clear, structured and legible Strategy can only help to achieve this aim.

Many of the issues addressed in the strategy have been successfully (and not-so-successfully) tackled in other small European cities. It is a bit frustrating to see that the only comparators are to cities that are mostly to a completely different scale than Limerick, e.g. Oslo (pop 570k), London pop 8m) and New York (pop 8m). There was a real opportunity to examine the spatial and economic strategies of similar-sized small cities, like Koblenz (pop 106k), Wurzburg (pop 133k), Esbjerg (pop 115k), Quimper (pop 63k), Västerås (pop 110k) and Shrewsbury (pop 70k). All of these cities are relevant to Limerick not only in terms of their population, but other socio-economic and geographical factors as well. What international comparators exist in the Strategy seem to arise from whatever city breaks the authors have been on in the last few years, rather than any desire to benchmark and learn from international experience. And it is disappointing that none of the lessons from ‘research visits’ taken abroad by council officials (and funded from the public purse) in the last few years made its way into the Strategy.

Some of the sections dealing with traffic and roads are a little odd. The Strategy deals with the pedestrianisation of O’Connell Street in little over a sentence, giving no reasons why the street should not be pedestrianised. There’s a strident assertion that Henry Street should be two-way, without any evidence at how this would help traffic management or pedestrian permeability.

It’s a shame that the economic cultural and artistic assets of the city are not explored more. The proposed Theatre Royal development gets only a brief mention, and there’s hardly any mention of the Creative Limerick project and no mention of how it could be extended.

There is no evidence of any commitment to good practice in public consultation. This is a good document, but it could be a great document through engaging with the people of Limerick. Public consultation is an area that Limerick City Council has historically been bad at, and it would be good to see some commitments in this area.

Finally, I am no means a marketer, but the marketing plan listed in the appendix is pretty terrible and needs a complete rewrite. Surely we have more innovative ways of communicating our message than spending tens of thousands of euro on signage and paying journalists to write nice things about us.

On Foreigners and Rubbish

Picking up rubbish today on the canal bank
Picking up rubbish today on the canal bank

Today was a glorious February day with searing sunshine, and I spent it picking up rubbish with friends.

And it was brilliant.

We joined the indefatigable Limerick Riverpath Volunteers who organised a Spring Clean of the canal banks between the city and the University of Limerick.  It’s a lovely spot, made even more beautiful by the blinding February sunshine.  It was surprisingly fun spending three hours picking up rubbish, there was great camaraderie and there is something satisfying about doing something physical with tangible results

The canal joins the City with the University 4km away and the path is popular with walkers, joggers and cyclists.  You can read an account of today’s cleanup on the Limerick Riverpath Volunteers website (including a description of some of the random things we found!), and Brian Leddin has an interesting post from one of last year’s cleanups on what a beautiful and useful amenity the Park Canal is. But what struck me today wasn’t the rubbish, but the people.

Some of the rubbish we collected
Some of the rubbish we collected

There were over 30 people at today’s cleanup.  On the face of it we were perfectly reflective of Irish society: some pensioners, families with kids, students, and all ages in between.  But there was one difference: according to the 2011 census in Limerick City, less than 14% of the population have a nationality other than Irish.  Yet by my reckoning, around half of the volunteers today were from outside Ireland.

The symbolism is stark – ‘foreigners’ turning out to collect our soiled nappies, cider cans and all the other detritus that Irish people like to throw away on our nature sites.

It’s a powerful slap in the face to the those who complain about people from outside Ireland who choose to come and live here.  My friend Carla got chatting to a lovely Romanian student, here on an Erasmus programme studying at the University of Limerick.  It later turned out she had only been here a few days.  When asked had she done this sort of thing before, she said:

The canal after we had finished!

Not here but I have joined cleanups back home.  They weren’t as bad as this though.

I am humbled that people who aren’t Irish would volunteer their Sunday to clean up our mess.  It’s a reminder of how much our country has been enriched by ‘foreigners’ who have come to settle here.  It’s maybe not surprising that they’re making a disproportionately positive impact on our society, but it is easily forgotten.  I hope we never forget how lucky we are to have them here.