Sunday, July 09, 2017

Viewpoint: Cars and the square

It wasn't unexpected that parking became a focus of discussion at the Town Hall presentation this week on ideas to improve the market square, writes Brian Byrne.

It is one of today's uneasy relationships. The car has given us extraordinary freedom, and also gets so much in our way.

As a motorist, and a motoring writer, cars are particular to me. The motor industry as an entity and in its products fascinates me. Gives me a living too. I like cars a lot. I love the freedom they give me to travel quickly and safely beyond my own place, and bring me back to it.

But they can also get in my way. As a photographer, for instance, particularly where my travel interest and my fascination with streetscape architecture meet, I find that cars get so much in the way, because they're parked in front of buildings I want to photograph.

Then there are the times when I like to sit and watch the world go by, get a sense of a new place at a streetside table with a coffee or a beer and see what people on the street are doing, wonder where they're going. Inevitably, there's motor traffic in the mix. Noise, smell, and a tangible tension between all those in the cars, vans and trucks fighting to get to wherever they're heading.

Cars, people, and urban spaces are at best a conundrum, and sometimes a barely disguised warfare between individuals exhibiting different and varying levels of frustration or worse, depending on whether they are in cars, are cyclists, or pedestrians.

I was struck by a comment at that Town Hall meeting, from urban designer James Hennessey, that 'town squares are too important to be car parks'. He's right. A town square should always be a point of focus for its population, and for its visitors. It should be a place of congress, of meeting. Of relaxing and bringing some human scale into their lives.

Kilcullen's market square would be a really good space for that. And it would return a centre to Kilcullen that has been missing for maybe a couple of centuries.

The Kilcullen we know began around 700 years ago when the first bridge over the Liffey here was built. But there would have been a huddle of houses in the square area before that, because it was the north side of the ford that had been the previous crossing. Unlike the south side, to the road that ran up by the back of what is now the location of the Credit Union, it was a flat space, where people would meet, share news of the highway in either direction, probably have a drink and something to eat before setting on the next leg of what were by today's standards very arduous and sometimes dangerous journeys.

The whole space was formalised for trade in the late 1600s, when a royal charter was granted for regular fairs in Kilcullen's 'market square'. Held six times a year, they were events that brought together sellers of produce and services, and their customers. We can today only imagine the buzz that fair days brought to the village.

But it wasn't just the fair days that brought people there. While the bridge — and the succeeding one that replaced the war-destroyed original in 1641 — crossed the Liffey, it was the square and the old ford point that gave access to the river. It was a place to fish, sometimes to wash clothes, maybe to bathe in an era of no running water. So people met there, and conversed there. And were no doubt entertained there by travelling minstrels and balladeers and clowns.

Parking wasn't a problem. Most travellers would be on foot or on horse, or travelling by cart or coat if they could afford it. Most local people didn't have horses, and came in to do their business on foot.

There may have been an issue with excrement, from the horses, and the animals brought for sale on fair days. But that was probably collected quickly for fertiliser by industrious local people growing their own vegetables.

If there was a need for a local meeting, it was likely in the square. Community halls were not a feature of villages then, and the local hostelries didn't have anything akin to modern function rooms.

All in all, down through the many centuries, the market square was a place for the people.

Which brings me back to another comment from James Hennessey at last week's meeting. He said that communities have to decide what are their towns for? "Are they for cars or for people?" He added that certainly we need cars in today's world. But we also 'need to find a balance'.

We do. Once a town on the way from Dublin to important places, including Waterford and Cork and even Kerry, Kilcullen today is more of a destination town. A destination for residents coming home at the end of their working day, a destination for leisure in the cafes and speciality shops and pubs.

We have to cater for those coming to our destinations. We have to provide them with places to park their cars. We have to offer them space in which to relax. And we have to encourage them to wander and enjoy our attractions.

That requires a centre to the town, which is at the moment too linear. Shops and cafes and pubs 'straggling down one hill and struggling up another', as Thackeray rather infamously put it.

I believe we really have to take back our market square from the cars, and offer it to the people. To those of us living here, and those who want to come in and meet us.

The market square is the obvious place. Making it a pedestrian enclave would allow people to enjoy the river aspect properly, and would offer a space for more regular community activities that bring people together.

An excellent example, before any changes are even made, is the concert next weekend organised by Lorna Brophy and Richie Kelly in aid of Pieta House. It will bring some 400 people who will have paid to hear local and nationally-famous musicians and singers.

That's a big draw. A small draw of even a Saturday busking singer-guitarist could also be the kind of thing that would encourage people to stop, stay, and enjoy a slice of Kilcullen life.

If a space is closed off for a specific event, it will bring people for one day. If it is a space always there to enjoy, it will generate a regular footfall. A footfall that will arguably provide more business than do the 16 car parking spaces that will have to be removed if the KCA plan to redesign the market square goes ahead.

It won't be difficult to find another place for those cars. There's apparently unused public parking under the apartments that front on to the square, spaces provided as a condition of the original planning permission (but a caveat here, I've not yet been able to source all of the original conditions imposed by Kildare County Council, and the matter is not mentioned in the altered conditions of the subsequent Bord Pleanala document). But beyond that, there is unused space on the road to Riverside Manor which could easily be turned into a bespoke car park for 30-40 cars, within two minutes walk of every business already in the market square area. Three or four coach spaces could also be provided, allowing daily visits from tour operators which would encourage further tourism related enterprise to develop.

And remember, a tourist is somebody who comes in from outside of town, so a facility like is envisaged for the square would attract our neighbours from Naas and Newbridge too, probably quite often.

Kilcullen has a long heritage of coming up with good ideas for the support and betterment of its community. Kilcullen Community Action/Tidy Towns is the current bearer of this banner, with its own very strong pedigree in this regard.

I'm fully behind this latest idea, which KCA has in fact been preparing for a couple of years. Let's go for it. Also, though it would take a strong tail wind to achieve, let's go for it to be at least partially there for the 700th year of Kilcullen Bridge in 2019. It is clear from the meeting that we will have wind in our sails from the direction of Aras Chill Dara.

Nothing like a challenge to get Kilcullen moving ...