By far the most charming and memorable thing about Cork is its close relationship with the Lee. And with the river’s twin channels running through the city centre, there’s always a real sense of being connected to water — even though this has its downsides in terms of periodic flooding.
Nobody would question the need to protect Cork from flooding. Its shopkeepers in the city centre know all too well how often they have had to “slop out” after serious incidents. Indeed, even the Glucksman Gallery at UCC, built in the Lee’s floodplain, had its basement flooded on one occasion.
This riverine landscape, largely created in the 18th century, is now threatened by the Lower Lee (Cork City) Flood Relief Scheme drawn up by a team of engineering consultants headed by Arup for the Office of Public Works (OPW), which has had legislative responsibility for arterial drainage since 1945.
It proposes “optimised dam operating procedures” for the city’s reservoirs during extreme flood events, designating upstream “washlands” to contain greater discharges of water from its dam, and diverting more of the flow to the North Channel of the Lee whenever there is a need to do so.
Before and after views of Albert Quay (from the OPW’s flood relief plan)
Most controversially, it would involve raising quay walls in the city centre, replacing railings with solid walls, pouring thousands of tonnes of liquid cement (“grout”) behind them and providing 46 underground pump chambers along the quays to get rid of trapped floodwaters from city streets.
Reeking of the past, this engineering solution would destroy the city in order to “save” it from flooding. And despite raising the height of quay walls and providing new embankments, the “Walls Scheme” (as critics call it) wouldn’t even protect Cork’s Docklands, a major area for urban development.
There is no doubt that Cork and other coastal cities in Ireland — including Dublin — will have to prepare for rising sea levels as a result of climate change. What’s at issue, however, is the appropriateness of a response that relies mainly on beefing up quay walls without really addressing the wider context.
Before and after views of Father Matthew Quay (from the OPW’s flood relief plan)
The Save Cork City group has been waging a vigorous campaign against the €140 million plan, arguing that it would result in the destruction of Cork’s relationship with the River Lee, severely compromising its architectural heritage and making the city much less attractive to tourists.
“Heritage has an intrinsic economic value. Economists know the value of cultural capital, for locals, for tourists, for businesses and for investors,” as its lengthy critique notes. “Cork’s river landscape, the most significant Georgian water landscape in the world, would be irretrievably lost.”
It also quotes engineering professor Philip O’ Kane, a world expert on hydrology, as saying that the Walls Scheme is 50 years out of date and would not work. “Increasing the speed of the river and building walls is unsustainable and increases the possibility of major flood damage,” he insists.
Instead of building up quay walls, whether in stone-clad concrete or toughened glass, as in Waterford, the Save Cork City campaign has proposed constructing a tidal barrier downstream at Little Island to protect the city centre — and, crucially, the docklands area — by deflecting storm surges.
It maintains that a tidal barrier could be built much quicker than the Walls Scheme, which would take six years and probably much longer. This would also “future-proof” the city against the threats posed by climate change whereas building higher walls along the quays won’t necessarily do so.
“We don’t want walls as solution to flooding in Cork. We don’t want walls at all, whether they’re glass or stone-clad concrete,” a spokesman for the campaign told me. “If the scheme goes ahead, the city would be a building site for at least six years, and you can imagine the impact of that on Cork.”
Save Cork City maintains that city businesses are “justifiably afraid that they will not survive another prolonged construction project”, involving the use of noisy sheet piling to excavate sites for the minimum 4mx4m underground pump chambers, and this could drag on even longer than six years.
Some 2.15km of sheet piling would be needed to construct the pump chambers as well as over 5km of concrete walls to replace or cover the historic quay walls, according to the campaign. In addition, nearly 7km of embankments are proposed, mainly in parks upstream of the city.
The computer-generated images make it all seem less gruesome, almost imperceptible in places, but the scheme’s critics insist that it would have a devastating visual impact on Cork’s historic core. Indeed, it is clear that the vistas of several city landmarks would be irrevocably altered.
New flood defences at City Quay, in Dublin (left) and on George’s Quay, opposite Custom House
At City Quay in Dublin, there’s a truly bizarre example of what not to do in building flood defences. Instead of following the long-established precedent, going back to the Duke of Ormonde, of erecting quay walls at the river’s edge, these have been laid in a jagged line at varying distances from it.
East of the Talbot road bridge, the 1.2m-high concrete walls are threaded through the trees along the campshire of City Quay, compromising one of the most successful urban landscaping initiatives by Dublin Docklands Development Authority and disaggregating the campshire itself.
This still-unfinished €5 million project, funded by the OPW, was designed to protect some 750 buildings in the south Docklands area from a once-in-200 years tidal flood. In addition to the walls, steel floodgates are also being provided; these would be closed over in the event of major flooding.
As a spokeswoman for Dublin City Council explained, the rationale for the jagged line lay in seeking to avoid covering up elements of Docklands heritage, including old hooks and mooring rings from a once-working port. This was done on the advice of conservation architect Gráinne Shaffrey.
But the new flood defences defy the more than three-century-old development of the River Liffey quays, laid down by the Duke of Ormonde. At least the new granite quay wall along George’s Quay did follow the historical pattern, even though it has irrevocably changed views of the Custom House.
One of Save Cork City’s most imaginative initiatives has been its Humans of Cork social media campaign, featuring residents and business people — including some who’ve been the victims of flooding — holding “Love the Lee” discs to show how much they value their river as the city’s prime amenity.Poets Paula Meehan and Theo Dorgan with one of the “Love the Lee” signs
“Support for Save Cork City is growing daily,” the campaign says. “Our social media posts have reached almost 28,000 hits on a single post. According to Facebook figures, we regularly reach over 50,000 people in a week. We have a lot of public support from people from all walks of life.”
Crucial to the campaign has been the backing of Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin — a Cork South Central TD — for an independent review of the Walls Scheme because of his belief that it would “impair the aesthetic quality of the city, which essentially is what gives the city its character.”
Indeed, he has said that the scheme could “seriously damage … the two channels of the Lee, the historic quay walls, the historic quay artifacts [and] the architecture around that.” He has also warned that the OPW project could take as long as 10 years to complete, disrupting city centre business.
It was Micheál Martin who arranged for the Save Cork City campaign to meet Kevin “Boxer” Moran, Minister of State in charge of the OPW, who assured them that he was “looking at everything”, according to a spokesman for the group. He also said that he would make a decision on it “very soon”.
Quite where this leaves the objectors is a moot point. As the scheme is proceeding under the 1945 Arterial Drainage Act, there is no right of appeal to An Bord Pleanála or, indeed, any other agency. All they can do is to keep putting forward the case for a tidal barrier and an independent review.
Even the Netherlands, where large parts of the country are below sea level, “doesn’t build walls anymore”, according to the Save Cork City spokesman. Indeed, an OPW flood relief study of the River Lee catchment concluded that such flood defence walls “would become redundant” if a tidal barrier was built.
In the meantime, the group is running an architectural ideas competition for Morrison’s Quay to show new possibilities, including even swimming pontoons. It would also be very useful if conservation organisations such as An Taisce and the Irish Georgian Society rowed in behind them.
One recent case gives cause for hope. After an outcry from people in Phibsboro over the erection of a concrete parapet wall obscuring views of the front of Broadstone Station, the Luas Cross City project team had second thoughts and agreed to replace this offensive visual barrier with a set of railings.
The Save Cork City Solution document an alternative to the OPW walls, can be downloaded at: savecorkcity.org/downloads/