Place-making, the River Lee, Public Amenities and the OPW

The OPW (Offfice of Public Works) has recently agreed to re-examine the cost of building a tidal barrage as it finalises the design of Cork’s €140m flood defence scheme. Originally, the OPW dismissed the tidal barrier on the River Lee for cost reasons. Over the past six months, there has been strong opposition to the OPW plan to build 5.7km of walls around Cork city to prevent flooding. It has been opposed by a campaign group called Save Cork City, climate change expert Prof Devoy, economist Dr Declan Jordan, Michael Martin TD, former green party TD and Senator Dan Boyle and many city centre business owners and 1,250 submissions have been received from the public on the initial design. The reasons for opposition are broadly that it will not work in preventing flooding and also the intended building of walls will destroy the cultural relationship Cork people have with the river.

The OPW plan has struck a chord with the Cork people and that is their connection to the River Lee. The River Lee is part of the identity of Cork people and it is a significant symbol of ‘sense of place’. It has shaped the social and cultural character of Cork as a place for living and working and has shaped the history of economic activity that has taken place in Cork.

The famous urban economist Jane Jacobs advocated a place-based, community-centred approach to urban planning recognising that towns and cities were more than a collection of buildings, roads and infrastructure, but a backdrop to our everyday life and experience. This backdrop can be instrumental as a source of creativity and innovation. Richard Florida (a leading author on economic competitiveness) stressed the important relationship between culture, creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation. Recently, the European Commission, in its EU-wide ‘Cultural and Creative Cities Monitor’ ranked Cork (in the small to medium sized cities group) first for “cultural vibrancy”, as well as listing Cork in the top eight ideal cultural and creative cities alongside the likes of Paris and Eindhoven. In 2009, Cork was included in the Lonely Planet’s top 10 ‘Best in travel 2010’. The guide described Cork as being ‘at the top of its game: sophisticated, vibrant and diverse’. This matters to our pockets because standards of living and more jobs are found in the top-scoring Cultural and Creative Cities. This suggests that culture and creativity and economic and social prosperity drive one another and thus mutually reinforce one another.

So a major question from an economics perspective about the River Lee OPW plan is what effect will it have on the cultural and creative vibrancy of the city? Will the higher walls make the city less attractive and in turn affect the tourism industry? How many songs, poems, stories, pieces of art have been inspired by the River Lee? Our cultural connection with the GAA and ‘the banks of our own lovely Lee’ is long and deep. And our connection with the river as a source of inspiration should not be underestimated. The European Commission’s cultural and creative cities monitor project was initiated to firmly establish the importance of culture and creativity among the public and engage policymakers and other stakeholders in targeted policy design and investment plans. Essential to this is that the economy of the city is aligned with their historical and cultural identities and empowers culturally diverse people as agents of innovation and entrepreneurship. Cultural and Creative Cities are expected to promote a model of harmonious urban development and wellbeing which is sustainable for both present and future generations. Do you think the OPW plan is consistent with achieving this goal?

Also what about the benefits to our quality of life. When you are sitting on Grand Parade enjoying a coffee or a drink – does the view of the river improve your experience and in turn increase your well-being? What about when you go for a walk in Fitzgerald Park – do you enjoy having a view of the river? These are all ‘soft’ and ‘fluffy’ implications, and in some ways intangible effects, but it’s likely that it matters. We pay a premium on houses with a good view. Restaurants and bars sometimes are popular largely because of the scenic environment in which they are located. Many places along the River Lee are for public use. These public spaces provide enjoyment that enhances our well-being. What price do you put on the non-market goods of our rivers (such as the Lee and Owenabue), beaches (such as Mrytleville and Fountainstown and Rocky Bay), our public walks (along Carrigaline-Crosshaven, Passage-Rochestown) our harbour and nice scenery in the Cork area? Has the OPW asked you this? In economics, we call this the public’s willingness to pay (WTP) for a public good. Perhaps, we should start using this concept to determine what changes should be made in our communities when it comes to protecting our public