Reinventing Limerick, Part 1 - Thomas Bibby

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.

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