With a slash to the face in a schoolyard rabble in 2000, the daughters of gang boss Christy Keane and close associate Eddie Ryan started a notorious family feud among gangland members caught up in the drug trade in Limerick – painting the city as crime-ridden and downtrodden, often referred to as “Stab City” by media outlets. Limerick is a city that has experienced many highs and lows, but today things are moving in a much more positive direction. Limerick is the Republic of Ireland’s third largest city, with around 100,000 people living in the metropolitan area. Part of Ireland’s Mid-West, the city rests along the River Shannon at its widest point before entering into the Atlantic. The city’s historic center, King’s Island, is bounded by the Shannon and Abbey rivers and home to King John’s Castle, a distinctive feature on the riverfront. A history of social inequality and exclusion plagues Limerick, largely driven by government policies on slum clearance and social housing in the 1930s and 1950s where massive social housing estates were built on the periphery of the city, outside the boundary with limited access to opportunity. The segregation and inequality reinforced by these housing estates drove a lot of the antisocial activity that still hurts Limerick’s reputation today, though crime has subsided tremendously in recent years with gangland crackdowns and housing regeneration projects. Additionally, Limerick suffers from the “donut effect” or what Americans call “sprawl” where the central city is abandoned by residents anxious to live in more rural areas just outside (equipped with their own shopping centers), commuting in with their cars. Aside from housing and land use problems, Limerick still struggles to bounce back from the relatively recent recession in 2008 which left 28.6% people unemployed (2011 census), nearly twice the national average. Despite past problems, Limerick continues to be beloved in the eyes of many. Determined to change the city’s historically negative image and revive its urban core, a community of go-getters armed with an air of positivity, pride, creativity and enthusiasm rivaled only by Buffalonians (see our post, “Boosting Buffalo”) are working hard towards the worthy goal of making Limerick Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2020.
Setting the stage perhaps for Limerick, Kyle and I roll into the city on a dreary, misty Thursday evening. The city is unlike any other city we had visited in Ireland; the streets we are on are wide and the buildings far less “Irish” (as an American tourist might see it), more modern-looking and like what we might see in an American city. Not immediately impressed with what we see (keep in mind we had this impression of Cork, too), we detour to the waterfront which is beautifully done but mostly deserted. Finally we turn onto a pedestrian street and set up camp at a local coffee shop, The Buttery, to read up on Limerick and coordinate our meeting with our interviewee, Nigel Dugdale, Marketing Executive for Limerick Marketing Company. With a time set for 9 AM at the Hook & Ladder coffee shop and café, Kyle and I retire to our hostel for the night.
The next morning, the sun shines brightly, making the water of the river sparkle as we ride back into the city center. It is as if a switch has been flipped. Nigel approaches us with all the energy of a true community dynamo and insider, bursting with knowledge and passion for all things Limerick. Although a Limerick native, Nigel admits that he left Limerick for 12 years before coming back just as the recession hit. In his time away, Nigel had attended school for drama and then taken a job with an architecture firm in Dublin, eventually moving to London (perhaps fueling his passion for urban design). He then traveled the world making his living by singing on a cruise ship for a short time. Upon moving back to Limerick, Nigel engaged himself in all manner of projects including working for a local radio station, the retail association, and a community-driven initiative called “Local Heroes” that created an ideas forum for regenerating Limerick and creating new jobs, attended by 400-500 local residents. Now he works for Limerick Marketing Company, an entity established by the Limerick Economic and Spatial Plan 2030 and tasked with developing and promoting the Limerick “brand.” Inspired by his work and his travels, Nigel brought with him the idea that what really affects the image of a city is how it is talked about, by both outsiders and its residents. In essence, with positive messaging a city can be transformed. Armed with this view, Nigel created a blog called “Positive Limerick” with over 12,000 views per month and currently writes a weekly column for the Limerick Leader, a local newspaper, dedicated to all things positive about Limerick.
“Six years ago people would have told me to not come back to Limerick. Now they would say that things are getting really interesting here,” says Nigel after a sip of Americana. Just last year the city was given the title of Ireland’s first National City of Culture, following the example of the European Union’s successful initiative, European Capital of Culture, a designation that has been honoring cities of Europe for 30 years. The chosen city develops a year-long itinerary of cultural events and activities, meant to bring together artists, arts organizations, local authorities and civic groups in an effort to showcase the city’s cultural offerings and catalyze the city’s cultural development. After a successful year with around 750,000 event attendees, Limerick isn’t about to let up on the momentum – now it is vying for the title of European Capital of Culture in 2020. In a valiant attempt to capture the energy exhibited by the city’s 3rd level institutions (namely University of Limerick, Limerick Institute of Technology and Mary Immaculate College) and by a revved up community after the year-long cultural program, a think tank has taken up residence at the Ormston House called the “Intelligence Unit (IU) Culture Lab,” bringing together researchers from all academic disciplines to share their ideas and knowledge of design with each other and the public in order to spur innovation and creativity on how culture affects a city.
Innovation in Limerick doesn’t just stop at culture; Limerick was chosen as one of Ireland’s Smarter Travel Demonstration Cities, resulting in 9 million euros worth of funding over the course of five years from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport (DTT&S) and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) to be utilized by the City and County Council in partnership with the University of Limerick towards infrastructural transformation and behavior programs promoting more active and sustainable transport including cycling, walking and shared travel. Aside from bicycle lanes, pedestrian spaces, maintenance training and education, Limerick Smarter Travel has since introduced bicycle lockers within several parking garages throughout Limerick to help entice people to bike into work or to the city center with a safe and sheltered space to park their bicycle. Also exciting – a public bike share was implemented just last year.
At this point in our discussion, the conversation shifts to Limerick’s spatial development. It is on this topic that Nigel really lights up. Taking our interview to the road, we cross over Henry Street towards the Shannon River, passing by an abandoned shopping center. Lamenting about how the building was a “missed opportunity” for people entering into the city from its main arterial, Nigel directs us to the bridge over the river so we can look out at the beautifully redeveloped waterfront. Cut off from the main retail areas, the riverfront is sparsely populated, despite it being a gorgeous day in Ireland. Nigel suggests that just putting a bunch of deck chairs out at the waterfront might encourage people to use it more as a “place to be.” Kyle and I look at each other and laugh, remembering the success of the Adirondack chairs at Canalside, a redevelopment project in Buffalo, NY. “In 5-6 years, Limerick will be a different city, but what can we do in the short-term to keep people optimistic about Limerick’s progress?” Nigel expresses to us his view that low cost projects with big benefits will drive momentum and keep people in the city – exactly what we had heard from our tour guide in Buffalo. “Let’s have a person turn onto a street and see it lit up vividly with an artistic light installation or something of that sort. My dream for Limerick would be to make it so that every time a person turns a corner they see something that makes you smile.”
Leading us across to the other side of the bridge, Nigel presents us with quite a majestic view of King John’s Castle, positioned right on the water. “What city in Ireland can claim they are located at the mouth of the largest river, have a castle in their city center, quirky people, beautiful parks…?” Nigel’s voice trails off as we stop a minute to take it all in. However, looking back behind us, it is clear as crystal that connectivity along the river from Limerick’s new town to its old is somewhat lacking. Nigel walks us forward into Arthur’s Quay Park, equipped with an outdoor theater space, explaining that it is in the plan for the entire area to be redeveloped into a new central plaza with a bicycle and pedestrian bridge stretching out across the water connecting with and opening up access to King’s Island, enticing people to visit medieval Limerick. Right now the space is a little worn down and fairly cut off from the more utilized areas of the city. However, as Nigel points out the handmade boats in the harbor and paints us a visual of people surfing out by the castle in high tide, we realize that again, it is the little things that are currently giving Limerick a little magic.
Crossing a bridge onto King’s Island, we walk by the court house, planning headquarters and the magnificent St. Mary’s Cathedral as we make our way to the castle. Just in the last two years, King John’s Castle had gone through a multi-million dollar makeover, equipped with a new interpretive center that Nigel assured us was a must see. Looping back onto Nicholas Street, Nigel exclaims over the street’s potential – if only there was a little façade makeover. Kyle and I immediately see it; the street could be a thriving tourist area given its location. We stop and say hello to a kitty climbing one of the preserved walls that used to surround the castle and then make our way back towards New Limerick so that Nigel can show us another big investment the city is making.
After crossing another bridge, this time over River Abbey, we see a group of mostly empty buildings. The City and County Council had already bought up the property, letting community groups and small business owners use the space while investors were recruited for the true project: the Opera Centre. Seven companies are already lined up to invest in a site that will be developed into premium office space at the heart of Limerick’s retail, with the aim of bringing more jobs to the city. The project has been a key focus of the Limerick Economic Forum, a group of high level businessmen giving advice to the City and County Council. As we take a jaunt up O’Connell Street, we come to one of Nigel’s favorite community entities, the FabLab. Inspired by the FabLab concept developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, Limerick’s FabLab consists of a group of staff, students and graduates from the Saul School of Architecture at the University of Limerick that have created their own digitation fabrication technologies for all to use in Limerick. One of their projects was to print out a 3D model of the City of Limerick, allowing faculty, students, community groups, civic leaders and the public at large to brainstorm and visualize what Limerick could be.
Reluctantly leaving Fab Lab, Nigel steers us towards Penney’s and another project he has worked on with their assistance. Approaching the department store, we see a pedestrianized area of the street separated from the busy main part of O’Connell with flower planters. Formally utilized as a stopping point for taxis, now the space is closed off to vehicles. Acknowledging that the area is still rather empty, Nigel points out that there is currently nothing in the space to encourage uncertain pedestrians to step off the main sidewalk. Challenging us to come up with ideas for the space, Nigel asks, “Do we put in a giant chessboard? A market? A temporary art installation? Keep in mind, it rains a lot here!” (Our wheels are turning, but we put it out to you dear readers – what should Limerick put in this space? A giant umbrella?)
Turning off the main drag, we enter onto Cruise’s Street, brightly colored with an artistic “Kites in Flight” installation created by students from FabLab. Nigel explains to us that prior to the project the street had been a relatively dead space. Now the street bustles with people as we walk down it a bit. “When tourists see something like this, they snap a photo, share it with their friends, and do our marketing for us,” says Nigel as I do indeed take a snapshot of the installation for my blog. Walking back out and then onto William Street, we pass by an alleyway with a pig piñata-looking display hanging towards the back. “See that? One of my favorite pubs is back there. This pig is something that makes people giggle and take a picture.” Click goes my camera.
Going around yet another corner, we find ourselves on Little St. Catherine Street, a pedestrian area sporting a wealth of quirky little shops. “One of my favorite areas!” exclaims Nigel as he takes us to Lucky Lane, a semi-outdoor garden/art gallery/thrift store converted from an old warehouse. After battling to refurbish the warehouse into something special and unique, the owners proudly exclaim today that they had a customer lament over not having anything like it in Galway. “It is a good sign when we are doing better than Galway!”
Ending the tour at O’Connell Street, Nigel points down the street to the Georgian Quarter, noting that Limerick has a main street full of some of the best examples of Georgian architecture. Unfortunately, the quarter has long been neglected, making it another major project for the city. “Imagine what it would be like coming down this street with the buildings restored – it would be a real attraction.”
Taking a picture of us to Tweet about in his own blog, Nigel bids us farewell and we are left with a very different impression of the city than we had experienced riding in. The sun continues to bask us in its warm glow, occasionally flickering playfully over Limerick. To us, urban planners, Limerick is a canvas just begging for some paint. Will it really be transformed in just 5-10 years? Nigel had told us that some people accuse him of blind optimism and perhaps such a transformation would be unrealistic. After all, in the USA, our plans can sometimes take 20-30 years to implement when all is said and done (endlessly frustrating to planners). But the potential is there and a plan in place – all 446 pages of it! What really strikes us about Limerick is the wealth of community energy being put into the city. From small business owners with creative business concepts, to student think tanks, to economic forums, and City and County Council plans – there is something happening in Limerick.
So what makes Limerick unique from American cities? The answer to that is that all cities are unique. They are living creatures, constantly growing and evolving, acquiring new identities as experiences are had and climates change. Sure European cities tend to be denser, have cool alleys, generally more lively pedestrian spaces and yes, they sometimes even have castles. However, what we love about Limerick is that there is love for Limerick by those who live here. What more could a place ask for?