An Open Letter to Sligo Borough Councillors

Director/Curator of The Model Seamus Kealy has urged Sligo Borough Councillors to ensure that not only will O’Connell Street remain a pedestrainised street, but that “we push ahead to ensure there is further opening and greening of our town”.
In an open letter to the Borough Council following the announcement that O’Connell Street would be re-opened to traffic later this year, Seamus expressed his concern over the future of O’Connell Street. The letter appeared in this weeks publication of The Sligo Champion, and online at SligoToday.ie;

Dear Sligo Borough Councillors,

I am writing you to express my grave concern for the future of O’Connell Street. It has been brought to my attention that there are again efforts to cease the pedestrianisation of this street, and to in fact revert the street into a traffic corridor.

Despite not having received a response to my previous letters to all Borough Council members in May, I have read and have listened to the arguments for reversing this pedestrianisation — especially those presented by yourselves, the Borough Council members. Weighed against the consequences of closing this pedestrianised space, there has been no convincing argument to do away with this initiative. I strongly feel that this is a retrograde proposal and I urge you all to think of the future of our city progressively and support this pedestrianisation.

The complete pedestrianisation of O’Connell Street is not possible at this moment due to our economic situation, but that is no reason to take a leap backwards. O’Connell Street as it is may not be aesthetically ideal, but it does work for the time being.

The gritty, unfinished look of O’Connell Street today is reflective of Sligo’s ongoing transition. Its current state is a declaration that Sligo is transforming, and that the city has a visionary community that is steering its economic and cultural growth. There have been festivals and happenings in the town — such as last week’s Cairde Festival — as well as large gatherings of people, all which attest that pedestrianisation is working and will continue to work. I will also remind you that pedestrianised initiatives in Dublin and Galway were often over much longer periods — but have proven to be successes for economic and cultural growth.

As someone who lives in the town and walks and cycles in the town, I have noted, after years of visiting Sligo, that there is already a tremendous and needless rule of the automobile here. From aggressive driving to a lack of safe walking and cycling paths, it is clear that Sligo needs a makeover — towards more progressive models of urban planning.

International studies and the grim fact of climate change have proven that the rule of the car has met its end. The times are changing, whether we talk about our needed care for global issues by starting on the micro level — here in our community. Towns and cities all over the world are rejecting 1950s ideas of progression and growth which placed the automobile on a shrine and had enforced its rule for city design.

Sligo has moved with the progressive ideas of our time by becoming a Fair Trade City, and can continue to put its money where its mouth is by ensuring initiatives such as pedestrianisation go ahead. I am certain that you all would be sympathetic to virtues that ensure future generations have a decent urban and cultural future. I appeal to you now to place ideals and ethics that better our lives at the forefront — and to think of the legacy we can be part of – when examining this O’Connell Street issue.

Recent urban studies have shown that walking space, green space, and urban pathways change the face of urban geographies consistently for the better. The prominent Danish Urban Designer, Professor Jan Gehl of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Denmark, has worked on numerous urban design projects both in Europe and Australia (including the Sydney Olympic railway station) and has published several books on the topic. His research has highlighted the success of several European cities in attracting people back to the city centre through high-quality pedestrianisation schemes. Gehl argues that the key to successful civic life is to create cities with public spaces that people want to be in and which encourage vibrant and diverse public life.

The argument is a simple one with complex results. Using the example of the Danish city of Copenhagen, Gehl describes a city that had been literally reclaimed from the car, where in the 1960s much of the road space, town squares and even the sidewalks had become large car parking lots, but in the new millennium were now very much the domain of pedestrians. Most surprising is that given the hostile climate to outdoor cafes and social space – a climate as wet as and colder than Sligo’s – the citizens of Copenhagen were out in the elements year round. This transformation happened despite protests that a pedestrianised style of urban life would not work because of the climate and the Danes’ love of their cars — again, a similar case to Sligo’s.

While Gehl’s work highlighted entertainment activities such as the cafe culture benefiting most significantly from city pedestrianisation schemes, he did note that city centre retail spending in Copenhagen had increased markedly with the greater influx of pedestrians. This is what Sligo needs as well.

Another urban planner, Rolf Meinheim from Germany, has conducted research both in Germany and in Australia (particularly Melbourne), into the role of pedestrian precincts in the evolution of city centres. His work in Munich has produced evidence similar to Gehl’s claim that pedestrianisation boosts civic health and economic diversity. Meinheim suggests that city centres need to be completely pedestrianised in order to create proper city centres that thrive. In practice, this means providing about 20km of pedestrianised streets or a great deal of the centre of cities — such as in Copenhagen or Amsterdam.

It is not speculation but fact that pedestrianisation of downtown cores, more and more common now internationally, not only brings community vibrancy and a better quality of life, it encourages sustainable development, greater and more diverse economic growth, and reduces crime and urban violence. It also encourages individual and community health, and it promotes community activity, tourism and cultural initiatives. Simply put, pedestrianisation and greening of urban cores bring us closer together and broadens what a city and culture are. It also enrichens the city economically. In time of economic decline, these sort of progressive initiatives should be embraced not revoked.

In this light, I would like to ask you all to consider the topography of Sligo from the position of those who walk and cycle this area daily. In the same moment, one can imagine the experiences of our most important visitors — tourists. The pedestrian street has opened up crucial new spaces for exploring the town, and discovering what it has to offer. Closing down O’Connell Street to allow traffic flow places a grey barrier on these experiences.

In short, I urge you to stand up for the O’Connell Street as its stands, and the future of Sligo and its integration into a greener, more culturally and economically diverse centre that leads the way alongside the vitally changing ethos of our times. In fact, I urge you to take this moment to push ahead for further pedestrianisation of the town.

The above cited studies and plans, as well as many others, clearly document what further pedestrianisation does for cities and towns. If we make progressive decisions about creating geo-social spaces, and creating central hubs, we are building a proper city and doing great service for present and future generations. The ramifications of ignoring what leading analysts, urban strategists, architects and environmentalists are telling us are too dreary to list.

I have spoken with a great deal of local individuals who have also expressed emotions ranging from disappointment to outrage about the idea of bringing traffic into O’Connell Street. The proposal to end pedestrianisation on O’Connell Street is not representative of the opinion of the majority of Sligo residents, and it is certainly not representative of informed decision-making. And as you are all aware, under the Planning and Development Act, the Borough Council “shall not effect any development in the borough which materially contravenes the development plan.” This is the business of city planners, architects and those with expertise in the health and future of urban areas. It is not a political issue.

For the future of Sligo and its citizens, I urge you to ensure that O’Connell Street remains as it is for now — a pedestrianised street — and that we push ahead to ensure there is further opening and greening of our town. O’Connell Street’s pedestrianisation is a key stepping stone to a brighter future for Sligo, a future that we will all participate in and develop in what ways we can. I urge you to participate in this progressive development.

Sincerely,

Seamus Kealy

Director/Curator

The Model

Home of the Niland Collection


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