Cities should be about their people. They should have a structure that shows off their personality to those who use them. They can be welcoming, forbidding, oppressive, unhelpful, joyous, warm. They should be constructed and structured without any hindrance to ability, age, gender, ethnicity. Above all, they should say what the people of the city wants them to say. And the pursuit of this goal is what should be the objective of all who are given responsibility for creating our cities.
I am prompted of this today as we straddle weeks which define Galway throughout its year. After a month of film and fun, next week, it draws a hand across its face and assumes a new visage, but a visage nonetheless that is of Galway.
The city walls oft chime to the discord of those who feel that the city does not do things they way they would prefer, but credit must be given this week to the decision by Galway International Arts Festival and Galway City Council to turn Eyre Square into the Festival Garden, showing a face that is welcoming and funloving and emblematic of what is happening in the city at this time.
The fact that they could locate there is a legacy of the decision to keep the Christmas market off the grass last winter and therefore preserve the green swathe for the enjoyment of tens of thousands this summer.
We need more of this thinking. Whether you live in a city or a small town, and whether you drive a car, cycle, take the bus or ride a train, at some point in the day, everyone is a pedestrian. For about 200 yards in the heart of the city, this innovation has made people walk or be pushed through a small taste of all there is to offer at this time of the year.
The Square this week has been a marketing person’s dream — smiling faces, happy sounds, children marvelling at the Luminarium, adults and families of all shapes and sizes enjoying the simple and safe delights of the Festival Garden
And yet there is room for improvement — the Christmas Market can learn from the Festival Garden, just as the Festival Garden can learn from its December counterpart.
It might be just a small thing to some, but the return of a Padraic O Conaire statue has restored some of the soul of Eyre Square. It is a hub for walking tours, a starting point for those who want to discover the city. Let not other parts of town feel they are being ignored. The Festival garden and the Square with its colourful Arts Festival events merely acts as a gateway to the city streets, a taster for what lies beneath and beyond, an enticement for the explorer that exists in the heart of every tourist.
I pass through Eyre Square twice a day heading to and from the Advertiser office; I see it in all its incarnations, and yet this week, I did so with a smile on my face. Most mornings, I stopped and snapped a pic or a video for our social media. If it has this effect on those who are regular users, think of the enjoyment visited on the tourists who were seeing it for the first time.
As a facility, it has remained underutilised. Yes, in the past it has acted as a venue for Galway Arts Festival events, but this year, it acted as a constant reminder of what the festival is about. The Garden was a haven for artistic types to pluck their ukuleles, for families to share coffees and ice creams, for the wanderers of the world to fling themselves onto the sheepskin rugs on the floor of the tented area, for people to see and touch the rubber statues and engage with art in an informal way. For people who would not consider themselves arties, they feel they have partaken in the festival.
I hope that the GIAF incorporate the Festival Garden into its programme for every year from now on, to create a summer spread that has as its counterpart, the winter wonderland of November and December.
Cities have to work for their people — one hopes that every decision that is taken by our decision-makers will bear this in mind, so that the lived experience of our city is one of inclusion and enjoyment.
For four decades, the relationship between the city and the Arts Festival has been one of a comfortable juxtaposition, but this year, they have moved a step further and created a seamless partnership with the everyday pulses of our city.
Well done to all involved — and let’s hope that they can develop this feature even further in the festivals and events of the years ahead.