News and Views

Our city centres need footfall more than they need cars

24 Apr 2018
St Patrick Street Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The lifting of the car ban on St Patrick’s St this week should not fool us.

Cheap car-parking blights urban centres, while pedestrians rejuvenate them, says UCC’s William Brady. 

Cork has been selected by government, under the National Planning Framework (NPF), as an alternative, national growth centre. This means developing the city as an internationally-competitive and sustainable urban environment. Cork is expected to accommodate substantial growth in population and jobs.

The NPF states that: “This requires an ambitious vision for Cork… providing housing, transport, amenities, and energy systems in a best-practice European context.”

For this to be realised, Cork will have to pursue transformative and progressive urban strategies to deliver the scale and quality of urban development envisaged.

On Friday evening, Cork City Council suspended a key element of its City Centre Movement Strategy — a critical part of Cork’s city centre transportation policy — after only three weeks and following objections from traders.

There is a danger that this will be interpreted as a signal that Cork may struggle to deliver the transformative, progressive urban agenda which is necessary to realise the ambitious vision outlined in the NPF. In addition, the decision might encourage the belief that the traffic changes were not working, and that cars on St Patrick’s St are essential for the vibrancy of the city.

But it is reassuring that people care so deeply about the city centre, and that all parties are committed to the same idea: An attractive, vibrant, and prosperous urban core. But how best to achieve this?

Urban regeneration/city centre renewal is a research and teaching specialism here in UCC’s Centre for Planning, Education, and Research, and having experience of many city revitalisation projects, we have identified a few key factors in city centre revitalisation and the role of transportation.

Crucially, we must retire the notion that cars are an ingredient of city centre success. This idea was decommissioned more than 40 years ago; not just in theory, but also in practice.

I do not know of a city that has successfully regenerated its urban core by encouraging car-use and by incentivising city centre car-parking.

Evidence overwhelmingly supports the concept of improving city centres through

improved traffic-management and by prioritising other transport modes. This ultimately improves footfall; and, after all, pedestrians bring life, and pedestrians spend money.

Urban cores can be improved through gradual pro-pedestrian measures, public transport investments, and public realm improvements. Cities that make these kinds of changes tend to succeed; cities that increasingly incentivise car-use tend not to.

Each year, as part of our metropolitan study visits with our first-year postgraduate planning students, we regularly visit the Yorkshire city-region of Leeds-Bradford to observe city centre regeneration. Both cities were once prosperous industrial centres, which have each attempted to regenerate their city centres in recent decades, but in radically different ways.

Leeds has redeveloped its entire city centre as an enormous pedestrian-only area, and it now has one of the most vibrant, impressive, and successful city centres (despite having a limited public transport offering) anywhere in the UK.

Bradford adopted a different strategy, implementing a strong pro-car philosophy, and it is now possibly the easiest city centre in which to drive and park. The only problem with Bradford is that its city centre has been decimated, and the effect of decades of car-based policy is there for all to see — a blighted, hollowed-out urban core.

The quality and success of city centres is based on a combination of factors, including the retail/commercial offer, streetscape and public realm quality, the availability of food and drink, accessibility conditions, walkability, and a range of experiential factors — safety, building quality, atmosphere, livability, heritage, and diversity.

The availability of cheap car-parking and the ability to drive right into a city centre is not on this list; in fact, it is usually a certain way to invite city centre decline and urban blight.

In competing with out-of-town shopping, city centres should resist the temptation to become more like suburban shopping centres — by promoting car access and incentivising parking. Cities, instead, need to exploit their comparative advantage by highlighting what differentiates them from those suburban shopping locations.

The selling point of city centres is their distinctiveness, their character and atmosphere, their vibrancy and land-use mix, the variety of leisure, cultural, artistic, and social attractions, and, critically, a diverse and quality range of dining and entertainment. These are what give city centres a competitive edge over soulless, sterile shopping centres.

As long as you have an attractive and appealing city centre core with all of those ingredients, people will increasingly patronise those centres in large numbers — even when parking costs are high and access is constrained. It’s all about the destination, not the journey.

In Cork, there is now an impression that the traders’ representative group feel Cork City centre’s success depends on cars accessing St Patrick’s St 24 hours a day. Whilst it is likely that there have been some trade impacts associated with the changes, maybe it was simply too early to review the impacts (positive and negative) without the benefit of empirical evidence.

Any review would need to assess the impact of all variables, account for footfall levels, and account for the influence of timing, advertising, traffic, and weather.

Last Friday, on the day the project was debated in City Hall, St Patrick’s St was thronged with people, while the street was still closed to private cars. Maybe April’s record-breaking rainfall contributed to poor trading conditions.

Cork City Council has a strong track record in delivering pedestrianisation and public realm projects, and has received a number of high-profile, international awards for street-enhancement projects.

However, I do have concerns about the current St Patrick’s St project, especially its presentation and delivery, and the emphasis on ‘movement/speed’ rather than ‘place/quality’. Unfortunately, it has been construed as a project relying on ‘negative powers’, and the traditional Part 8 project consent approach may not be the best way to generate broad consensus.

It would also be easier to generate consensus if it was presented as part of a wider street-enhancement programme, focussing on footfall-oriented measures, as well as narrow bus journey time targets. In other words, it needs to combine its rationalist logic with a more convincing, planning-inspired storyline.

When the project is being revisited, over the summer, perhaps this can be progressed, using an alliance of shared interests around the future of Patrick Street and the surrounding areas.

This partnership can be a productive one — with a mission to pursue a holistic place-making scheme that secures the strategic integrity of the City Centre Movement Strategy, which addresses traders’ concerns around footfall and local access, and which secures the vibrancy and attractiveness of the street.

However, for this collaboration to work, the City Council needs to develop a more convincing storyline that combines arguments around the ‘common good’ with an understanding of how to address people’s individual concerns and interests.

For their part, the traders’ group must also recalibrate their narrative, and engage more constructively with the idea that a thriving, prosperous city centre depends on having more people and fewer cars.


William Brady is a town planner and a lecturer in UCC. He previously worked in private practice in Cork/London. Based in UCC’s Centre for Planning Education and Research, he is involved in research and teaches on the Masters in Planning and Sustainable Development.

His research specialisms include metropolitan spatial planning, urban development and regeneration, urban governance, second-tier cities in Europe, and city-region planning.

For further information about the Centre for Planning Education and Research at UCC visit here

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner. To read visit here

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