What comes to mind when you think of a City Center? If you are from North America, a City Center likely brings thoughts of tall, glass buildings connected by wide, straight streets designed with the automobile in mind. However if you are from Europe, a City Center probably brings images of small buildings connected by narrow, windy streets designed for people walking from place to place. It comes as no surprise that both of these development patterns result in places that feel and function differently from one another. Cycling through Ireland, we have experienced first-hand the opportunities and challenges that come with City Centers developed in the middle ages, which got us thinking: How exactly do you plan for a city that is centuries old while meeting the demands of the present and future?
One such city in Europe that features a medieval City Center is Galway, Ireland. With its first development dating back to the early 1100’s, the city has undergone many transformations over the years. To find out about how those transformations take place today, we met with John Doody, the Executive Planner for the City of Galway. In correspondence before our meeting, John informed us that “If you ask any local where the best place is they’ll say their own city, but their second choice will be Galway!” Needless to say, we were excited to meet with John and learn how planning for a city with nearly nine centuries of history is undertaken.
Meeting at City Hall, we begin by looking at city maps to add perspective to our meeting. John starts by talking about some large-scale projects that are currently underway and in the works, many of which are in response to Galway’s rapid population growth, the fastest in the Republic of Ireland. John explains to us that accommodating this growth in a sustainable manner while preserving the historic character of the city is the purpose of Galway’s Development Plan, which envisions the population growing from 72,414 in 2006 to 98,700 in 2022. The Development Plan is the document which guides all development in the city through zoning code, which controls the location and type of development that can be built.
Galway is required by the Republic of Ireland to produce a Development Plan every seven years, as well as implementing the goals and objectives found in the plan within the specified timeframe. With weary eyes, John explains how this requirement can sometimes translate into long nights at the office when deadlines come near, since the Minister of the Environment can take control of a local planning department if they are seen as not implementing plans in a timely manner.
In conjunction with the Development Plan, a Habitat Plan must be created to assess the impact of proposed development on the natural environment. This European Union requirement specifically seeks to protect over 1,000 plant and animal species, as well as over 200 habitat types. John details some of the significant impacts the directive has played in Galway, such as needing to reroute a proposed ring-road when a protected species was identified, as well as protection of the Galway Bay. There is currently a proposal to fill in part of the bay for a new development, but it will at least be years, if it ever happens since permission to build in an area protected under the Habitats Directive must come from the EU itself, with the member states voting in favor of allowing it to happen, after it has been proven that the project is of national significance. Due to this lengthy process, and the possibility that at the end the development will not be allowed anyways, John says that development on lands protected under the Habitat Directive are quite rare.
After talking about the city via-map, our meeting moves outside to the proper. As John takes us through a newer commercial development which preserved (you can see it next to the food court) the original City wall found during excavation, he also touches on some of the development proposals which have not come to fruition in the city because of the constrained building footprints available. John also highlights other projects that have been implemented to help keep the City Center a lively, historic and desirable place, such as creating pedestrian zones along the main commercial streets, requiring any new development in the City Center to have a residential component to ensure continuous activity, and a strong effort to preserve and capitalize on the natural and physical assets the city has.
Veering off of beaten path, John takes us to a trail that follows an old canal to the river, highlighting the goal of the city to create linear paths across the city for people on bicycles and pedestrians, which would also help to attain sustainability goals (such as fewer people driving) found within their Development Plan. Moving along on the topic of transportation, John talks about the current removal of roundabouts which is taking place along one of the main arterials in the city. This caught my attention, as many states in the US are looking to install more roundabouts when feasible, replacing four-way stops or signals. The reason Galway is removing them, John informs, is that the traffic volume was so uneven coming from two opposite points (such as the North and East, with most traffic heading West), that the que from the second entry (in the example, from the North) would back up substantially. The city has found that signalized intersections which can adapt to changing traffic flows instantaneously are much more efficient in these situations.
As the trees break for a bridge across the river, the breathtaking Galway Cathedral comes into view. With a chuckle, John tells us that the cathedral used to be a jail, and was not actually converted into a cathedral until the 1950’s. The cathedral is just one example of the importance of reusing existing buildings and adapting them to meet current needs to preserve the character of the city. With tourism representing a major economic driver, preservation of the historic City Center as well as Galway Bay are important not only socially and environmentally, but economically as well. On this note, when asked about some of the interesting things that come up in planning in the City, John says that over his years at the office, certain developments are hot for around five years, and then it moves onto something else. The current hot development is hostels, with many having opened in the recent past or slated to open in the near future. Only time will tell what will come next!
Circling back down the other side of the river, John walks us through a neighborhood with varying architectural styles, a community theater, and an alternative pub on the canal that he recommends we check out in the evening for real “Irish Music”, not the “Traditional Irish Music” found in all the tourist centered bars (we do go back that evening for comedy, which is quite good, but when the audience is asked who is from Galway, one lone hand is raised).
Heading back towards Eyre Square, which had recently been redeveloped to capitalize on its power as a central gathering place, John winds us through some of the alleys off of Shop and High Streets, the main commercial corridors. The city is currently trying to bring more life to these areas, which offer a more relaxed atmosphere than the busy main streets. Certain streetscape elements have already been implemented, such as planters and street trees, with more additions on the way. In a City Center that is built out, utilizing underused space, such as the alleys, can help provide needed additional space as well as further economic development for the City.
Arriving at Eyre Square, and informing us why there is a seemingly random front façade of a house (it has local significance, which residents did not want removed), John says he should probably head back to the office (he had been with us for about four hours!) Saying farewell, we part ways with an even greater appreciation for all Galway has to offer. We extend great gratitude to John for meeting with us and sharing the inner workings of Galway and Irish planning. Cheers!