Street smarts

Living

THE FUTURE? Blackrock in Co Dublin, where on-street parking spaces have been transformed to provide outdoor seating and additional space for pedestrians.

Plans in motion to make Westport Ireland’s first 15-Minute Town

Ciara Moynihan

With all of us on a five-kilometre leash these days, there has been a renewed focus on the services and amenities on our own doorsteps. Many of us have become hyper aware of everything that might lie within a short walk or cycle.    
A new initiative has been started in Westport with the aim of future-proofing the town as a healthy, sustainable and vibrant place to live. It’s an intriguing proposition, beautiful in its simplicity and practicality. And it’s a model that could be used in towns all over Mayo.
Called 15-Minute Westport, it was established earlier this year as an SEAI Sustainable Energy Community initiative. The idea is for the town to adopt a similar planning strategy to the 15-Minute City concept made famous by the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo.
Since forming a central plank of Mayor Hidalgo’s reelection campaign in 2020, the concept has continued to make waves. She won that won election comfortably and has gone on to transform Paris’s transport strategy in her first term.

Liveability
The 15-Minute City strategy puts liveability at the heart of town planning, with an overarching aim that access to everyone’s daily needs – such as work, education, food and recreation – should be within a 15-minute journey of their home.
Now, obviously that doesn’t mean a 15-minute plane ride. The whole purpose is to enable sustainable travel, so that most of these short journeys can be completed on foot or by bicycle.
The 15-Minute Westport movement was formed by a diverse group of local people with a common interest in putting wellbeing at the heart of local development.
The history of the group can be traced back to early 2020, where several members met at a series of Climate Action Awareness Workshops hosted by Mayo County Council and the Climate Action Regional Office.
“The workshops sparked some great ideas for us about different ways in which Westport can adapt to meet the challenges presented by climate change,” says Feena Kirrkamm, a local resident and member of 15-Minute Westport. “A group of us decided to focus on how we could enable more people to choose sustainable transport modes for their day-to-day journeys.”
“We really want Westport to be a healthy town,” says Kirrkamm. “The 15-Minute City concept puts an emphasis on quality of life, by giving people back time in their daily lives and creating an urban environment which is healthy and attractive, and a pleasure to spend time in.”

Outdoor summer
While sustainable transport is high on the group’s agenda, it also wants Westport’s streets to become a more welcoming, people-friendly environment which enables people to spend more time in the town. This could include simple changes such as widening footpaths and providing more public seating and more public toilets.
One of 15-Minute Westport’s more immediate concerns is about how the town will adapt to accommodate outdoor seating and dining during what’s expected to be a busy tourism season in 2021. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has recently spoken about the need for local councils to support plans for an outdoor summer.
“Westport’s hospitality industry has been decimated by the pandemic, and we don’t expect indoor dining to return until the second half of the year at the earliest,” says Kieran Ryan, another member of the group. “It is vital that we start planning now for a spring and summer of outdoor dining, and how we can adapt Westport’s streets to accommodate this.”

On-street dining
Last year saw many towns and cities around Ireland convert their streets into outdoor dining areas. Princes Street in Cork made headlines when it was turned into a dining street and immediately became a magnet for both locals and tourists. In other places, such as Blackrock in Co Dublin, on-street parking spaces have been transformed to provide outdoor seating and additional space for pedestrians.
However, as ably pointed out by columnist Anne-Marie Flynn in her column An Cailín Rua (Opinion, page 30), it seems rural Ireland must take the reins in ensuring a sustainable future for its hospitality and tourism sector.
A grant scheme for outdoor dining infrastructure is being rolled out by Fáilte Ireland in conjunction with local authorities, but the scheme focus on Dublin, Kilkenny, Killarney, Limerick, Waterford, Galway, Cork and Athlone only. As Anne-Marie says, ‘no urban centre north of Galway [is] eligible for support’.
It’s only thanks to the vision, initiative and enthusiasm of groups like 15-minute Westport that the west can truly hope to secure its viability as an attractive destination with vibrant, sustainable communities, amenities and businesses.
For Kieran Ryan, the facilitation of outdoor dining can have additional spillover effects that everyone could enjoy. These would include wider footpaths for pedestrians, buggies and wheelchair users, as well as the creation of additional meeting places that would enhance the social fabric of the town.
“We should at the very least attempt a trial of an outdoor-dining street to see how it would work,” he says.
“A weekend trial of outdoor dining could easily be achieved using temporary measures, and then let’s see what the feedback is like from the public. There is nothing to lose in trying it out.”
Kirrkamm, Ryan and the rest of the 15-Minute Westport group are encouraging more people  to get involved and share their ideas for a healthy, sustainable and vibrant town. They can be found on Twitter and Instagram @15MinWestport.

15-Minute Westport is the operating name of WEST (Westport Enabling Sustainable Transport), which is an SEAI Sustainable Energy Community.