A new beginning for Ireland’s oldest city?

Opinion: William Brady
(Centre for Planning Education & Research, UCC)

I was interested to read recently of two very significant Waterford city centre projects. The proposed development of the Michael Street/New Street block for a retail-led scheme combined with the €17.3m urban renewal programme led by Waterford City & County Council in public realm, streetscape and traffic management works, could signal a transformative moment for this city.
This would appear to be a concerted effort by a combination of public and private interests to coordinate the delivery of two major regeneration initiatives which could be hugely important for Waterford – delivering a vastly improved city centre retail offering and a much improved urban environment.
This joined-up thinking and strategic action may provide the catalyst that Waterford city badly needs.
One of our research activities at the UCC Centre for Planning focuses on ways in which city and town centres can retain and enhance their attractiveness and viability as successful economic, social and cultural centres for their respective regions. It is important to support city centres because they provide a multitude of services and facilities to a wide regional population.
A prosperous, dynamic city centre is the key ingredient of a successful urban area. From analysing patterns of development across Ireland, what is clear is that strong regions tend to have strong urban centres.

The proposed development of the Michael Street/New Street block could signal a transformative moment for this city.

The proposed development of the Michael Street/New Street block could signal a transformative moment for this city.

There is no doubt that the success of Cork and Galway’s wider metropolitan regions is linked to the success and vibrancy of their respective urban centres. In simple terms, a strong city centre is absolutely essential to regional success.
The challenges that Waterford and the southeast generally have faced are well documented. Socioeconomic statistics consistently show that the region underperforms in respect of employment levels, educational attainment, public and private investment and Waterford city has suffered.
This is certainly reflected in the city centre, which has lost much of its vitality as a retail and commercial destination. The quality, diversity and scale of retail has declined since the onset of the recession and this has had a negative impact on the city centre’s profile, image and confidence.
The planning system has a critical role to play in addressing these issues. In the case of Waterford, the development plan correctly places the city centre at the top of the retail hierarchy for the region, and the regional planning guidelines for the southeast declare that future retail activity must be concentrated in the city centre to maximise economic benefit.
Waterford city currently suffers because of what we call ‘retail leakage’ whereby the city centre simply cannot compete with the dispersed suburban attractions and, more worryingly, with other urban centres. Every week, money leaves Waterford, travelling down the N25 to Cork and up the M9 to Kilkenny and Dublin where it’s spent on shopping, food, culture and entertainment.
Along with the urban renewal works, the Michael St project will provide an important retail injection by facilitating a more competitive city centre offer.
This is not just about economics though. Concentrating development right back into the heart of the city has crucial social and environmental benefits and will improve Waterford for everyone, enhancing the city’s liveability, accessibility and sustainability.
This is not to argue for development at any cost – quality design and layout are a must and the Michael Street scheme will be considered carefully in terms of its impact on the surrounding area, the built heritage and the extent to which it delivers an appropriate mix of uses in a scheme that is integrated into the existing fabric of the city centre.
Planning for successful city centres has two strands – protection and enhancement. ‘Protection’ of the city centre means controlling the amount of retail floorspace permitted at the edge of the city, on suburban or greenfield locations.
‘Enhancement’ involves a whole range of initiatives aimed at improving the quality and offer in the central area and making it more attractive for people to visit.
On the theme of ‘Protection’, Waterford has been somewhat fortunate that two large scale suburban threats never materialised as intended.

“A strong city centre is
essential to regional success.”

A combination of the Ferrybank scheme and the First City Quarter (the large project proposed by Edward Holdings in 2007 for a site at Airport Road/Outer Ring Road) would certainly have undermined the city centre significantly.
Policy should resist future attempts to create large scale suburban destinations. This needs to be complemented by strategies that incentivise new retail and associated development in the city’s core.
When it comes to ‘enhancement’, Waterford is making excellent strides. In a recent visit to Waterford, myself and colleagues were struck by the quality of improvements as we walked from the Mall to Cathedral Square via Bailey’s New Street.
The relentless efforts to establish an attractive cityscape and series of cultural and tourism activities around the Viking Triangle concept is to be commended. This is an impressive example of an authentic and concerted regeneration effort. In fact, it is a model for other towns and cities and sets the standard for the rest of Waterford city centre.
The terminal decline of city centres is forecast regularly and in Waterford I sometimes hear locals declare ‘down the town’ as dead.
However, we should remember that the unique selling point of city centres is their distinctiveness, character and atmosphere; their vibrancy and mix of land uses and their variety of leisure, cultural, artistic and social attractions.
Older cities benefit from a sense of place and their historic importance as centres of trade, commerce and social life spanning centuries. Waterford city centre has many of these assets and now needs to improve and deliver on others.
How do we know that this can happen in Waterford though? If you want evidence that Waterford city centre can prosper again, just think about the ‘Winterval effect’. What Winterval demonstrates clearly is that if you make the city centre attractive enough, and improve what it has to offer, people will respond in huge numbers.
In December, the city centre was full of people shopping, spending, sitting down, interacting, walking and enjoying themselves. Many of these were locals who decided not to go to Kilkenny, Dublin or Cork this time while others came from those places to Waterford. Why? Because it had something to offer. That something was the city centre in its best clothing.
Good planning is actually remarkably simple – it is really about putting the right things in the right places at the right time. The Michael St scheme and the urban renewal/public realm improvements in Waterford sound like they might just be the right things in the right places at the right time.
* A regular visitor to and long-time observer of Waterford, William Brady is a qualified and experienced urban planner and lecturer in University College Cork. He previously worked as a planning consultant in Cork and London and has wide experience of large urban mixed-use schemes, city and town centre redevelopment and revitalisation programmes, large scale master-planning projects and various urban design, public realm and transportation-related projects in urban settings. Currently based in UCC’s Centre for Planning Education & Research, he is involved in research and teaching on the Masters Programme in Planning and Sustainable Development.

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