There are many words beginning with “D” that enter the conversation when discussing planning in Limerick – “Deprivation”, “Dereliction” and “Distance” to name but three. But there’s one “D” that shines through and which will overcome all the obstacles given time: Determination. Everyone I met on my visit to Limerick exuded this quality and it was compelling.
This was not a visit to a shiny, new place: Limerick is an historic city with huge challenges in the early 21st century, all legacies of its past. A medieval city which was markedly extended in the Georgian era, it has many historic buildings – too many, sadly, in need of care and restoration. Until recently, the city was split between two local authority areas – the City Council controlling the centre and the County Council responsible for the outskirts and countryside beyond. There are countless examples of the deficiencies this brought – competing shopping centres either side of the old boundary, all heavily car-dependent and draining trade from the city centre; major employment centres on the edges of the city, also car-dependent; and even the University situated some four kilometres outside the centre and with a multiplicity of car parks.
“Distance” is a large part of the challenge facing the city planners, brought together in 2015 in the new City and County Council. “Limerick Smarter Travel” is a programme of investment encouraging travel by public transport, walking and cycling. A new foot and cycle path has been constructed (with seasonal lighting), connecting the University to the centre: on a bright, sunny September day, it is certainly well used. Sadly, the route doesn’t quite reach the city centre and the next challenge is to complete the path into the heart of the city.
Distance is also an economic factor: just two hours from Dublin by rail, Limerick is light years away in terms of investment and values. European funding and Irish government support are making substantial funds available and there are signs of enthusiastic take-up of high quality business space. Limerick 2030 – a wholly Council-owned economic promotion company– has just completed the impressive mixed-use development at “Garden international” in the city centre. Limerick 2030’s aim is to deliver regeneration in the centre and on sites around the city which set examples of what can be achieved and spur wider investment. Its key strategic projects include the Opera site in the northern part of the city centre where refurbished and new buildings will contain shops, housing, business space, an aparthotel and a “living room” for the city in a new library and public square, all delivering 3,000 jobs. Funding has been secured and planning permission is awaited (not without some delays caused by complex procedures surrounding Council-owned development).
There is little doubt that Limerick offers great opportunities for city living: companies such as Uber have opened offices, recognising the scope for younger employees to enjoy a low-carbon lifestyle, taking advantage of the restaurants, bar, shops and other facilities in the centre. Initiatives such as the Horizon 2020 fund and Living City Tax Incentives are there to support investment and there are exemplars of co-living and co-working “co-creating the future we want to live in”.
The regeneration of the city centre is closely – but not exclusively – related to the efforts to conserve the Georgian neighbourhood, a grid of streets and laneways (rear service courts) with fine (and some not-so-fine) 18th century properties. Sadly many of these are in disuse and disrepair – showing clear signs of dereliction - as a result of the disinvestment, low values and suburban competition. Liveable Limerick is working to bring forward a long term vision for a greener, cleaner Limerick: led by local architects, it has proposals for traffic management that should greatly enhance accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists and create a place that is people-focussed, inclusive, desirable and – a rare word in planning – fun.
For all the focus on city living and economic investment, the challenges facing Limerick are brought into stark focus in the 1970’s housing estates in the south of the city. It’s here that deprivation comes to the fore while the distance between the residents and the rest of Limerick and Ireland could not be greater, lacking connectivity, remote from facilities, and economically deprived. The estates include two wholly social rented, three-bed developments, each of 1,200 dwellings. Explosive events in the middle of the last decade brought the estates to national attention. While austerity and organisational challenges initially frustrated work, regeneration is now well underway. Investment has included new access routes, programmed demolition, higher quality new build and the provision of new services. There is still much to do but consultation – “house by house, street by street, block by block” – is a notable feature of the approach, described as “consult and connect”.
Limerick isn’t a universally pretty place but it has a wealth of history, culture and talent. Despite all the challenges of distance, dereliction and deprivation, innovation, inspiration and determination to succeed promise a bright future for this characterful city.
Ian Tant is President of the RTPI.