Workers on foot and bicycles at the old boot factory in Kilkenny
The last eighteen months has been a true shock to the system for every Kilkenny citizen in every part of our lives.
We have come through extraordinary times, being confined to our immediate neighbourhoods for large parts of that time. We have learned to get all we need within 10 minutes’ walk of our homes, for those of us lucky enough to live in our cities and towns. We have come to depend again totally on our food shops and our city market for the food we eat and to find it, fresh and local, within easy reach.
Our local businesses have stepped up to the plate and many have come into their own. Many of our non-food retail shops and businesses have had real struggles, however, with even click and collect seeing us being very slow to return to ‘normal’ shopping habits.
Luckily, the Central Bank and the ESRI tell us this week that spending has increased substantially as many of us replenish empty wardrobes. For my part, that is all being done in city centre stores - no trips to Kildare Village, thanks very much!
One of the other benefits of the Covid-19 period has been a slowing down of our pace of life. In the 20 years since I moved to Kilkenny, I have never seen so many people out walking, running, cycling and socialising while doing so. People stop, chat, smile at each other (even behind the masks!) and get to know each other or simply catch up. We have gotten used to stepping aside for each other and giving each other space and chatting from a safe distance. People seem to be rushing less than before. We have also discovered the magic of our city lanes, car roads and hidden nooks and crannies.
The main intervention in our city to allow this to happen has been the introduction of the one-way traffic system on High Street and Rose Inn Street. Those streets feel more welcoming to most people I have spoken with. Gone is the fear of young children stepping in front of cars going in different directions; the awkward squashing yourself against a wall to allow the wheelchair user or the parent with the double buggy get by or walking your dog into the middle of the street on a Saturday night as the smokers and revellers occupy the narrow footpath outside some of our finest hostelries.
Predictably, there are those who want to turn everything back immediately. As happens throughout the country, there is always traction for those who oppose and fear change. We cannot, however, pretend that the ‘old way’ was always the best. In major studies carried out by Fáilte Ireland and Waterford Institute of Technology over a decade ago, both local citizens and the visitors on whom so much of our local economy depends, stated clearly that our city centre was congested and uncomfortable.
In the meantime, many towns and city centre areas have taken the leap and reduced traffic in their retail centres, with hugely positive results. It doesn’t just work in huge cities as some have claimed. It has worked in Clonakilty, in Tralee and on Shop Street in Galway!
Our council did a far better job this time that the last time the one-way system was tried. This time there was real consultation, this time people were brought on board, this time there was enough notice, enough signage and real engagement with businesses and citizens.
The surveys they carried out last year showed very strong support for the changes. They are about to survey us again and I hope that the results will be equally, if not more positive.
I have long favoured pedestrianisation of High Street at least. I believe we should trial this in the coming weeks, even on one day a week to see how it works. In the meantime, I warmly welcome the intervention of Pat Boyd of Keep Kilkenny Beautiful, the organisation who, along with our wonderful council staff, have brought so much positive attention to our city and whose efforts have been so central to our booming tourism sector.
Finally, there is one argument that is often forgotten about in this debate. That is our responsibility to our children and grandchildren. We all know that our world is in serious climate crisis. We also know that we have a responsibility to play our individual part. Making it easier for us all to walk, cycle or use our fantastic new bus system to get around our beautiful city will make a real difference.
I would like to see us go back to the ‘old ways’. I have included a photograph here (right) of dozens of workers, on their bikes, outside their workplace at the ‘Boot Factory’ in Wolfe Tone Street in the 1950s. Now our newest and biggest employers in the city centre are the wonderful workers of Cartoon Saloon and Lighthouse Studios. I am told that over 70% of their workforce walk or cycle to work.
Let’s demand our children, including the 80 to 100 who cycle and scoot to the school in which I work, be given prominence in our city. Let us all ensure that local residents, businesses and those with mobility issues are accommodated in easily accessing the city centre streets, where we hope many will return to live ‘over the shop’.
Let us allow our city centre to breathe again and to thrive in a new (or old!) fresh and sustainable way. Let’s create a real ‘new normal’ for Kilkenny. Let’s raise our voices to make sure it happens!
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