Top prize to Westport - a model for every town and county
MAUREEN GAFFNEY is a native of Cork and a resident of Rathmines. She loves both, she says with conviction. “But I have to say I love Westport. It’s a place of such quiet civilisation, a little gem of a town, glowing with colour. And not a single piece of litter.”
And yet, if she and other judges had left it at that, Westport would have been just another tidy town.
“Westport is a beautiful place, well-kept and pleasant to visit, but those aren’t the reasons it won”, said Conor Goodman, Irish Times features editior, who chaired the judging panel.
“The judges chose Westport because it is a community of people working together to make the best of the town’s many advantages.”
In a town of 5,500 with a staggering 97 voluntary associations, this is hardly surprising. Gaffney was struck by the human engagement, by the number of people who simply met her eye: “Maybe they recognise you but they’re just curious probably – they look at you and they salute you, to use that country expression.”
She imagined what it might be like to be a stranger moving to Westport: “I concluded you would have a tremendous chance of integrating . . .”
Westport has its own singular means of integration. Usually, a stranger in a new town would ring the golf club to get to know someone, said Gaffney; in Westport, you would ring the Tidy Town people. She spoke of them as “forces of nature . . . people who could run Ireland”.
Some 15 rotas of volunteers – including retired people and transition year students, each with their named hi-vis jacket – turn out on a Sunday morning to clean up the litter after the Saturday night ravages. “By 9am, there is not one piece of litter left,” said Gaffney. “It’s almost become a status thing to be on the rota.”
This is crucial. Having worked as chair of the Rapid programme for some years and having been to every deprived estate in the country, said Gaffney, one of the difficulties they consistently heard, was of getting people to work together. Westport has solved it.
The chamber of commerce works hand in glove with the town council, which works in turn with the voluntary associations, who all work with the businesses. Much of the town’s glow is attributable to the natural slate roofing, the beautifully designed street furniture and the paint-colour service offered by the town council to local businesses.
The town boundaries, building design and attention to detail were fiercely guarded and maintained in the bubble-era. Social housing was designed as carefully as any private development, located within a walk of the town, surrounded by leafy, well-lit green paths, with allotments in front of the houses. “Westport is a model of how to do it well,” said Paul Keogh.
Some €60,000 in prize money from multiple awards was set aside and invested in a centre for young people, incorporating a skate-park, a vandalproof shelter and an outdoor gym beside it. A minor problem with graffiti was resolved when the artist involved was tracked down and diverted to decorate the skate park. In the face of mightier challenges, the town never dropped its standards.
It hauled Lidl before An Bord Pleanála, forcing it to adapt its customary box design to the town’s aesthetic. It funnelled Dunnes Stores into an attractive stone-built old school in the centre. The Westport quays were developed, with tax incentives, says Frank McDonald, “but not in a bad way”.