2020 is not a year that many of us will forget easily. It was a year that challenged us like we could never have anticipated but it was also 12 months that reinforced for our innate need for human connection, community and nature in our everyday lives. It was a year when we collectively learnt to take nothing for granted.
At Cork City Hall, the first lockdown saw city council staff continue to deliver essential public services like fire services, water services, housing and homelessness services, traffic systems, street cleansing and the maintenance of our public parks and green spaces. A number of our non-essential staff were redeployed to support the then fledgling contact tracing service. Scores more donned high vis’ vests and became our award-winning social distancing park rangers – supporting people who relied on our parks and green spaces like never before as we all adjusted to the notion of keeping two metres apart.
Within two hours of a Ministerial order, Cork City Council also set up its Covid-19 Community Response Forum (CRF) which proved to be a lifeline for some of the most vulnerable in the community and best practice in inter-agency collaboration.
We worked with homeless services, Meals on Wheels, the HSE, the Education Training Board, community gardaí, the GAA and groups like Friendly Call to support cocooners and any vulnerable person who needed a help during lockdown.
In the following weeks and months we also saw a rapid deployment of a wide range of online services which again helped to reduce the numbers needing to visit public counters at City Hall and allowed us to hold councillor briefings and eventually full council meetings online.
We were able to hold a largely online public consultation around the Cork City Development Plan 2022-2028. This CDP is enormously significant as it will set out the actions necessary to ensure Cork can realise the Government’s ambition for it to become the country’s fastest growing city.
Crucially in terms of Covid-19 business supports, Cork City Council and Local Enterprise Office (LEO) Cork City provided nearly €48 million in rates waivers and nearly €35 million in restart grants to small, medium and larger business and hundreds of trading online vouchers and business continuity vouchers.
The need to facilitate social distancing and economic recovery in our city also saw a rapid acceleration in the city’s vision to become a city of sustainable urban growth through the ‘Reimagining Cork’ programme. In addition to significant pedestrianisation in the city centre and Marina, Cork City Council delivered the €1.5 million repair of 6 km of existing cycle lanes, the installation of safety bollards on 4.4 km of key cycling routes, new cycle lanes at Centre Park and Monahan Rd, Lower Glanmire Road and Horgans Quay and the installation of racks for approximately 500 bikes.
And through all of this, we continued to provide our 400 public services ranging from libraries, planning and housing construction to arts and events – including a largely virtual Culture night, a Re- Imagined Glow, the Ardu street art trail and the Burning of Cork ceremony outside City Hall which was attended by An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin earlier this month and is on the RTÉ player for another year.
COVID 19 provided us with a new lens with which to consider our city.
In addition to focussing on economic and social recovery, the pandemic saw us all viewing our immediate environment differently: we want access to nature, to biodiversity and to quality public realm.
Cork is a World Health Organisation (WHO) Healthy City and the next City Development Plan will seek to build on this by assessing the need for parks, greenways, blue ways and other sporting and recreation facilities needed for the growing population. The plan will also place an emphasis on the unique built and natural heritage of the City.
In addition to homes and businesses, Cork lays claim to strategically important assets like two universities, the Port of Cork, hospitals, courts, transport infrastructure including Cork Airport to name a few. These all need to be protected from the extreme weather events that will inevitably increase due to climate change. Land use planning, as articulated in the City Development Plan, must be considered hand in glove with climate change.
This year, residents, communities and businesses have demonstrated remarkable agility in their response to COVID 19. We all realised that we couldn’t bring about change by working in isolation and this collaborative spirit and resilience is a clear indicator of how, as a city working together, we can achieve greater long-term ambitions.