Any discussion on the fortunes of retail in Limerick merits some context. In the last five decades Limerick has allowed itself to sprawl outwards by permitting the construction of large suburban residential areas, such as Castletroy, Annacotty, Caherdavin, Moyross, Westbury, Southill and Raheen. A number of large institutions, such as the university and the hospital and large industrial estates were also built on the periphery. And of course shopping centres too. These were planning decisions that led, over time, to the people and their wealth moving from the centre to the outer edges. In the past when living in or near the city people would have walked or cycled in to town and done their shopping, but that all changed from the 1960’s onwards. Society became more suburbanised and more car oriented and with the advent of shopping centres the city centre became less important and also less appealing, and went into decline. If you lived in Castletroy, Raheen or Caherdavin you’d be less inclined to sit in traffic in order to do your shopping in the city centre when you could go to the Crescent, the Parkway or Jetland, for example. The phenomenon is not unique to Limerick. Thousands of cities around the world have followed a similar path and are trying to undo the damage and chart a better way forward.
The development of suburban Limerick would not have had such a detrimental effect if the city got the transport planning right. But it didn’t. Fundamentally, transport planning in Limerick was (and still is) all about deference to the private car above all else. And that simply doesn’t work very well. It means you have to build big (expensive) roads to carry a lot of cars but you’re still trying to funnel them all into a small, medieval and Georgian city centre. For the space that they take up in our cities cars are the worst mode of transport for enabling the movement of large numbers of people. It makes far more sense to build infrastructure to facilitate busses or bikes, because that allows many more people to access the city centre than would be possible by prioritising cars. In other words, by prioritising cars we’re effectively limiting footfall.
We can’t turn back the clock but we can make make good decisions now to revitalise the city centre. Getting the transport planning right is key. The car has been given priority for a long time, but that day should be over if we want to see Limerick city centre survive and thrive. On the access routes, in some places, we are likely to need to take the space away from cars and instead install bus and bike infrastructure. In the centre itself we must do away with on-street parking and use that space better. Wider footpaths, landscaping, street art and furniture would all be better uses for the space because they make the streets more attractive to be in.
We also must incentivise and enable living in the city centre, not just travelling to and from it, because it’s the people who live in it will be the main source of footfall that will sustain local businesses. The principle of ‘compact growth’ underpins good planning. We should want as many people as possible living comfortably in good accommodation in a small area so that they can get around easily (without cars) and so that they are numerous enough to sustain a vibrant local economy. We have to look at where people could live in large numbers in or near the city centre, and we have to make living in the city attractive to people. There’s a number of facets to that, of course. One of them is to create a pleasant and appealing urban environment, so again it’s about reducing the car dominance and all the negatives that go with it. People are much more likely to want to spend time in a city with clean air, less noise, less danger from traffic, more landscaping, better walking and cycling facilities, leisure amenities, etc.
On the question of why family owned businesses are in decline versus the large chains, I would ask if we have good data on that in Limerick. We have anecdotal evidence, but we need hard data to draw firm conclusions. While some businesses are closing others are opening. There are certainly many factors at play. One thing is certain is that the nature of retail is changing and especially so in city centres. Many goods and services are purchased online now, if not in the out of town retail parks. It’s a challenge for any business. Should we resist the change or embrace it? I’ve no doubt that there is opportunity there for both the big chains and locally owned businesses, but they will have to adapt. And the Council should certainly support our local entrepreneurs as much as possible. Research consistently shows a strong link between the presence of locally owned businesses and higher rates of job creation, less income inequality and stronger social networks, so we have every reason to get behind this sector.