Why Cork? Why now?

In the first of our series of articles on the city-region of Cork – the location of the Academy’s 2018 Congress about ‘cities on the rise’ – local architect Seán Kearns AoU explains some of the unique context that makes it a relevant place to visit and study the phenomenon of growing mid-sized cities.


Photo of Cork by Arseni Mourzenko

The distinctive physical setting is part of the drama and appeal of Cork, but also a part of its challenge as it confronts a future with significant urban growth and external commuter pressures. The heart of the city is located on an island in the River Lee, at the mouth of the magnificent Cork Harbour on Ireland’s south west coast. It is a city of some 125,000 souls within a hinterland that is currently home to 450,000. It is a small city with an ancient past, tracing its origins to the early 6th century Christian monastic settlement by St. Fionn Barra; he is commemorated in the magnificent neo-gothic cathedral, St. Finbarre’s, to the west of the city centre.

St. Finbarre’s spire and the bell tower of St Anne’s in Shandon, are two iconic structures that feature in any views of the cityscape. St Anne’s Shandon Tower, built between 1722-1726, has a giant two-metre bronze fish as its weathervane in recognition of the city’s maritime history and a clock on each of its four sides; these are invariably out of sync with each other and the real time and therefore the tower is known by Corkonians as ‘the four faced liar’. This is an example of the friendliness, charm and wit cited by Lonely Planet when Cork was listed as one of the top 10 world cities to visit.

Trading roots
There is a fundamental question that any urbanist should ask of a city and that is “why is it here?” In Cork’s case it is because it initially became an urban centre as a Viking trading post in the early 10th century, located on a marshy island in the middle of the riverine channels that cut through the green woods. In that respect it shares some antecedent roots with Aarhus, host of our 2017 Congress in Denmark.

What may have attracted the Vikings was the fruitful raiding opportunity to be had upon the early Christian settlement of St Fionn Barra, but later the island became a Norse settlement where river and pathways crossed as it was one of the few places where the River Lee could be forded.

In medieval times, the city was effectively cut off from English rule in the Pale around Dublin. It was literally ‘Beyond the Pale’ and surrounded as it was by hostile Gaelic chieftains. Cork therefore looked to the sea and developed a maritime mercantile class who traded with continental Europe. The city grew dramatically in the 18th and 19th centuries, trading in butter, wool and beef to Britain, Europe and North America. From this international trade Cork Harbour was further developed with a maritime and naval infrastructure around the picturesque Georgian and Victorian town of Cobh (formerly Queenstown), which we plan to visit during Congress. Here the British Navy built a base on the island of Haulbowline (currently the headquarters of the Irish Navy) and two impressive bastions: Carlyle Fort and Camden Fort to guard the mouth of the Harbour; and a fortress on Spike Island. Spike Island later became a prison and is now known as ‘Ireland’s Alcatraz’. It has become a major attraction and was in 2017 awarded ‘Europe’s Leading Tourist Attraction’ at the World Travel Awards.

Post-industrial re-orientation
International economic investment in Cork and its workforce is not just a feature of recent times. A century ago in 1917, Henry Ford built his first car factory outside North America in Cork Docklands, in recognition of his Irish heritage – his grandfather had hailed from County Cork. Along with the adjacent Dunlop plant, this factory was the centre of Ireland’s automotive industries up until the mid-1980s.

Due to their closure and the massive unemployment created by the 1980’s recession, Cork had to pivot itself away from these traditional industries towards the then nascent computer technology and pharmaceutical sectors. Cork is now the European headquarters for Apple, EMC Dell, and many other major pharma and medical device companies such as Eli Lilly and Boston Scientific. Cork’s Apple factory was actually founded as far back as the 1980s to build the original Macintosh, a long time before Apple became the world’s largest company. The hi-tech plant now employs 6,000 people, the same number employed in the Ford factory at its height of production.

For over a 1,000 years, Cork has been a Hansa-like, independently-minded mercantile city that has looked outwardly to Europe, North America and the wider world for its trade – this is as true today as it ever was. Instead of ship building and the export of butter, the city trades in pharmaceuticals and computer technology. What will the next economic drivers entail?

Modernising and revitalising the public realm
The city is built, Venice-like on a riverine island, and its streets and lanes are based on the medieval patterns from this time. The configuration of the city streets cannot be understood without the essential knowledge that many of them were once canals and wharves – notably the sweeping curve of St. Patrick’s Street, the generous main street. Cork became a city of 18th century commercial boulevards crossed by perpendicular medieval lanes, with evocative monikers such as Mutton Lane, Elbow Lane and Sober Lane.

The vibrant streets are lined with local businesses and Victorian covered markets, such as the famous English Market, a centre for the excellent local food produce, in particular seafood, and noted in assessment that led to Cork winning the Academy’s Great Town award. Like so many European cities, Cork has been restricting cars in the city centre in recent years and creating pedestrianised areas. In 2002, Cork City Council selected Beth Gali, the distinguished Catalan Architect, to design a new public realm for St. Patrick’s Street, Grand Parade and Cornmarket Street. The St. Patrick’s Street redevelopment was opened in 2004 to much acclaim, ready for the festivities of Cork’s tenure as the European Capital of Culture in 2005 and since then it has twice won the award as Ireland’s best shopping street. Although not part of the Beth Gali scheme, Oliver Plunkett Street, which runs parallel with St. Patrick’s Street, won the Academy’s Great Street Award 2016, coming exactly 300 years after it was laid out in 1715. It was noted by the jury as being a vibrant living street and community that had raised the bar for the other finalists in Liverpool and London.

The future as a growing maritime city-region
As well as having a historical and vibrant city centre, Cork has evolved to have all the key attributes of a successful growing city. It has an international airport, a deep water harbour, a well-established and renowned University College Cork, the growing and ambitious Cork Institute of Technology, while the whole city-region has become a centre of excellence for biosciences, pharma, food science and information technology industries.

Cork has been identified in the Project Ireland 2040 National Plan as a primary city for growth with proposals for dockland redevelopment and a light rail system. The 2040 plan is a €115bn 10-year plan that is expected to deliver development for a projected additional one million people. Considering the obvious constraints on the Dublin region conurbation, regional cities such as Cork will play a larger part in the delivery of the National Development Plan.

The Cork city boundary has recently been extended to include expanding suburbs, towns and villages on its periphery and effectively the city’s population has doubled overnight.
Despite this outward growth, the fact that the city is built on low-lying marsh means much of the core is highly vulnerable to climate change; it has already suffered significant tidal and fluvial flooding in 2004, 2009, 2012 and 2014.

The response to this has been the Lower Lee (Cork City) Flood Relief Scheme, a highly controversial €140m civil engineering flood wall scheme, which aims to protect 2,000 homes and business in the city. However, the impact of this major infrastructural project and the potential loss of 18th century quay walls, campshires and landscape by the erection of flood walls along the river edge has led to vocal opposition to these government plans, and demonstrates the high value placed on their historic cityscape by Corkonians.

Within all these dynamic challenges there has emerged a renewed focus on the moribund Cork Docklands which have remained semi-dormant for over 30 years. Considered the key location for this new growth and expansion of the city is the 140 hectares of prime docklands, located on both sides of the River Lee close to the city centre. This is a regeneration opportunity equivalent in scale to the original Cork ‘island-city’ and the only significant location available for future growth, with massive potential for new development and placemaking. How Cork manages this planning and development process is critical as it will set the template for the future of the city for the next generation and beyond.

Can Cork do an Aarhus, a Bilbao, a Malmö or a Hamburg? Or at least learn the lessons from the transformation of these harbour cities? We hope The Academy of Urbanism can help us explore the lessons and share best practice before, during and after the Congress. I hope to see you there in Cork for what should be a great experience for urbanists.

Seán Kearns AoU is a director of Reddy Architecture + Urbanism and based in the Cork office. He is responsible for projects across a range of sectors that include residential, hospitality, leisure, retail, education, technology, health, office, civic and transport sectors.