The University of Limerick should be ‘at the heart of the city, not on its doorstep’, a seminar held by the school of architecture has heard, thus making the city ‘liveable and loveable’, reports Alan Owens.
DON’T worry folks, says Dr Stephen Kinsella, I will lead you into Mordor, but back out into the Shire.
There are few in an audience made up primarily of student architects that fail to grasp the University of Limerick economics lecturer’s pop culture reference to Tolkien.
“It’s lovely to be out of your element; normally I am depressing people on the radio, now I am depressing you,” he adds, a nod to his other life as a frequent, and entertaining, commentator on pending economic doom. Here Dr Kinsella is something of a fish out of water, joining a forum hosted by UL’s school of architecture (SAUL) to discuss the weighty topic - ‘The Future of Limerick’.
The panel consists of three respected thinkers; the head of Design for London Mark Brearley, sociologist Dr Eileen Humphreys and the self-effacing economist, with the discussion group chaired by Merritt Bucholz, professor of architecture and head of SAUL, in front of a large audience of students, architects, politicians and other interested stakeholders.
A dynamic economics lecturer and author of Ireland in 2050: How We will be Living, Dr Kinsella deserves to be listened to as a voice speaking from within the university about its abilities to help serve the city in which it is located.
The slightly depressing element of his presentation focuses on the lack of infrastructural development in the city, an absence of local investment and over-reliance on foreign direct investment and the many other problems that have left the city seemingly bereft, deprived of economic planning and requiring urgent urban regeneration.
Kinsella’s solution - one that he firmly prefaces as “not university policy” - is for UL to “buy Limerick”.
“UL is the biggest entity in the area. It is a corporation and corporations can borrow. UL is part of Limerick and is never leaving - it will be here for hundreds of years, this is the message I want to get across. Limerick is cheap, UL should buy it, hold it, develop it,” he says.
To illustrate his theory, the economics lecturer notes other universities worldwide that have large land holdings, and gently berates his employer for “moving away from the city”.
“How can we turn around?” he wonders, appealing to the students in the audience to be “master of their own ideas” and to participate in this process.
Dr Kinsella believes that the Opera Centre is not the answer to this problem - thus directly contradicting the kite flown by Minister of Finance Michael Noonan earlier this year when suggesting UL was examining the relocation of the humanities department to the site, purchased by Limerick City Council earlier this year for a figure thought to be in the region of €12 million.
“I don’t think it (the Opera Centre site) is the answer. It would saddle UL with a white elephant without great hope of development and impose large fixed transaction costs on UL with uncertain short or long term payoff.
“Instead, why not locate four experimental campuses, leased for four years, within the Georgian core of the city, and shut them down if they fail?
“We have no idea what will work - the university and the city are complex systems,” he explains, proposing tax breaks for the Georgian part of the city (also recently espoused by Mr Noonan) and to encourage competition and experimentation as the way forward for the future development of the city.
“The City of Sport designation was a good idea but Limerick should be the ‘City of Change’, an interesting place with a world class university at its heart and not on its doorstep,” concludes Dr Kinsella.
In the discussion that ensues, local councillor Diarmuid Scully speaks, agreeing that the Opera Centre would “not be suitable” for UL, rather it should be kept for prime retail usage. “I don’t agree that the relocation of UL will transform the city, students are certainly welcome and it is important, but having students in the city is not the full solution.
“The set policies of a single local authority are part of the solution,” declares the Fine Gael councillor.
Merritt Bucholz, UL’s inaugural professor of architecture, appointed in 2005, has been conducting design lead research in SAUL since 2008 - the result of which are central to his motivation for hosting this forum in the first place.
He explains his renewed faith in the newly appointed manager of the merged Limerick local authorities, Conn Murray, who told the American architect that he would not be following a deliberate path, instead was “going somewhere there is no path”.
“His vision and that statement is fantastic, and gave me great hope for what we are trying to do,” says the Princeton educated architect.
Tom Enright, who recently took on the role of director of economic development in the new joint authority, also spoke, noting the economic and spatial plan currently being prepared which will examine how to bring life back to the city and which will go on public display next year.
“Third level education has to play a part,” he admits. “A large campus with 700 students would bring vitality, footfall and services into the city which would provide jobs and employment. A greater commitment from third level is needed to revitalise the city.”
“Marks and Spencer won’t solve the city’s problems either, if they come it will be part of the solution,” he continues. “We are looking for support and help to implement any plans and we need the people of Limerick to come forward.”
Speaking later, Prof Bucholz explains some of the research he and his team have been engaged in, referring to a current Department of Education backed survey of 18 schools in Limerick that SAUL is carrying out, and the Smarter Travel programme that his team is central to, as proof of the “power of process versus projects”.
“The university must lead within its community on the future of Limerick city,” says the Chicago-born architect. “This is not just part of UL’s strategic plan, it is the fact that ideas are the most powerful tools of crafting the future and if nothing else the university is a trading house for ideas.”
Prof Bucholz argues that UL can be a “powerful platform for discussion about public policy”, where people from all parts of the public sphere can “speak without hindrance, and address frankly the difficult problems we face”.
“We in SAUL have come to the perhaps unsurprising conclusion that the political voice coming from a very evenly dispersed settlement across county Limerick is far louder than the densely inhabitable, but not densely inhabited, and very much unloved city.
“This political voice has driven development completely contrary to national and local authority policy, and we think it is time for a change of direction.
“The city must change; it must become liveable and lovable. This transformation will be based partly on policy, partly on economic circumstances, but mostly this will be based on the city actually responding to the increasing demand people have for quality. We need to make a city that responds to what people actually want.
“This is possible in Limerick but it will not be easy; much leadership will be required to see through the kind of ridiculous politics and administration we have suffered in the past 20 years. Limerick will be great if we make it great, if we live it and love it into greatness.”