IT’S in the air. A buzz about Cork City, a growing sense that long-needed change is happening. But are we poised for a great leap forward, or yet another left-turn into a dead-end?
As a recent arrival home after many years away, I’m fascinated by our idiosyncratic city, not really Irish at all, but an Atlantic City. An ancient mercantile port with centuries-long (and now renewed) connections to the four corners of the world.
I am Barrack Street born and bred, now home again in the city centre. And Barrack Street is a perfect microcosm of Cork now - a bit shabby, a little stuck-in- transition - but with great history (a spectacular 17th Century Star Fort, right on my door-step) and great potential. It could be poised for take-off, like the rest of the city - with smart investment - of the hard cash and imagination kind.
We chose to come home, we want to stay here, see our daughter grow up here and play a part in seeing Cork city survive, thrive and reinvent itself as what it should be, a great destination city, a fantastically livable, compact, culturally-rich and energetic harbour town.
Look to cities like Barcelona, Porto, Hamburg — now thriving places with a lot in common with Cork, Second-City mercantile ports which suffered for years after losing their trade, their confidence and their sense of themselves, only to be reinvented and to find their mojo again.
In 2004, as Berlin struggled following reunification, its Mayor Klaus Wowereit declared; “Berlin ist arm, aber sexy!” or — “Berlin is poor, but sexy!”.
It was a brilliant piece of branding in many ways. It turned the city’s perceived problems into pluses and acted as a rallying cry for Berliners.
So — what do we Leesiders do? How do we make our city “sexy”? Well, I believe we should start by;
TELLING OUR STORY
We are an open, diverse, connected, culturally rich, sometimes quirky, always surprising north Atlantic port. We have always welcomed outsiders. They built the gaff.
But we have not been great at projecting what makes us unique. At spelling it out.
Let’s all agree to tell a new Cork story. Confident — not chippy. Open and welcoming to all, visitors or new citizens.
Write it down. Agree on a style-book for every Cork institution that has any dealings with the outside world. Tell the One Story. Project the One Brand, We are not the ‘Real Capital’; — we are Cork, we’re not better than anybody but nobody is better than us. Come and see for yourself.
LOVING THE LEE
The two channels of the Lee surround us and embrace us. Our energy has always flowed down the river, past the docks and out through our epic harbour. It is our history and our destiny.
Yes, the flooding that strikes the city centre has to be addressed. But leaving politics aside, are giant concrete walls really the answer?
One of my favourite spots in the city is the boardwalk outside the Electric bar and restaurant — where you can sit with a coffee or a pint, look down the river towards the docks or up towards St Finbarre’s Cathedral. We should have ten, twenty spots like that along our open river quays. Seats, tables, greenery, cycle lanes, walks.
It’s shocking how little we use our great river, port and harbour. Think of the Ras Mor — the mad dash down the river by hundreds of little boats every year as part of the Ocean to Sea festival. Is the city ever more alive or more in touch with its great maritime heritage, its true beauty and soul?
In 1992, using the Olympics as the impetus, Barcelona — then dowdy and pretty overlooked - reinvented itself by turning back to its port and re-developing its docklands. Cork needs to do the same. Urgently.
GET THE WORD OUT
We have traditionally been terrible at networking with our Cork diaspora — and they are everywhere, in London, Berlin, New York, Silicon Valley and on and on. Get them involved and energised. Give them the tools to promote their city. One practical and easily doable step — create a digital package with details on investing and living in Cork, testimonies from the companies and entrepreneurs already here. Get it out there — so our Corkman working in Silicon Valley can say to his boss, his colleagues, contacts; “Here you go, look at this great place, Its my hometown and here’s all you need to know about it.
REGIONALISM — RECOGNISE THE REAL ENEMY — LIMERICK
Regionalism is happening fast in the UK — they are about to elect a powerful new mayor for the new “Metro Region”; or the West Midlands. Power and resources are moving to the regions all over Europe. It will happen in Ireland — it has to, given the ridiculous and destabilising gravitational pull of Dublin.
The new reality is that Dublin is not our enemy, or our rival. It’s Limerick. The Treaty City has come on in leaps and bounds recently, thanks to some smart thinking and progressive institutions like UL. We are in a fight to be the capital of Munster, of our southern Atlantic Coast. Cork must position itself as the natural claimant, the entry point for everything from the Wild Atlantic Way to major FDIs, and the Tech sector.
BRAND OUR CITY SPACES
When you are in Cork City Centre — there’s not a lot to tell you that’s where you are.
We need to see giant murals and smaller street art (Mad About Cork volunteers are already doing a great job) of Michael Collins, Christy Ring, Road Bowling, Hurling, the UCC Skull & Crossbones. Open up sites and invite artists to do their thing. Use the city as our wide canvass, tell our story, splash some colour.
MAKE CORK BEAUTIFUL
Conserve and restore the Huguenot/Georgian/Victorian and Art Deco fabric of the city. Make more people aware of the tax breaks, such as the Living Cities Initiative, for restoring homes and living in the city centre.
Make it more financially attractive for people to do the right thing by the fabric of our city. And more importantly, tell them how to do it.
Above all else — we need unity of purpose, creativity and bold thinking. Nobody else is going to do it for us.