John O’Donnell obituary: Cork planner who helped ‘save’ the city

As planning department head he opposed road plans and championed city centre

John O’Donnell

John O’Donnell


Born: September 24th, 1935
Died: May 9th, 2021

John O’Donnell, who has died aged 85, headed the planning department of Cork Corporation (now Cork City Council) for 26 years and is credited with playing a key role in saving the city from destructive road plans. He is also remembered for promoting the rehabilitation of historic areas, such as Shandon and North Main Street, where he pioneered the idea of living over the shop.

O’Donnell was educated at Clongowes Wood College and UCD school of architecture, graduating in 1961, and then went on to Edinburgh, where he obtained a postgraduate degree in planning from Heriot-Watt University for a thesis on the future of Cork. In 1969 he was a visiting fellow at the Center for Metropolitan Planning and Research in Detroit, in between working for Cavan and Wicklow county councils and as planning adviser to Bord Fáilte.

It was in Cork that he got the chance to realise his original ideas when the late TJ (Joe) McHugh became city manager in 1974. They developed a solid working relationship, which proved crucial to Cork stealing a march on Dublin in strategic planning and heritage protection. Like McHugh, O’Donnell knew every street in Cork, and their shared enthusiasm for the city was quite infectious.

A 1968 traffic plan for Cork had recommended an elevated urban motorway and wholesale widening of radial roads, requiring demolition of 600 houses. But the intervention of McHugh, working closely with O’Donnell and others, led to this contentious scheme being abandoned and replaced by a more balanced land use and transportation study, the first in Ireland.

Inner-city rehabilitation

The study paved the way for McHugh and O’Donnell to recast inner-city planning policy in the 1979 Cork City Development Plan, placing more emphasis on rehabilitation and filling of vacant sites, and less on comprehensive redevelopment. A revolving fund was also established to renovate houses in poor condition, partly to convince neighbouring property owners that they could safely do likewise.

Local plans were produced for each of the inner-city neighbourhoods, starting with a ground-breaking plan for the Shandon area in 1980 that included a grant scheme with a wide uptake to encourage people to repaint their buildings.

O’Donnell obtained EU funding for the Cork Historic Centre Action Plan, published in 1994, and later for the Cork Urban Pilot Project to restore an early 18th-century terrace on Fenn’s Quay, whose demolition he had resisted, as well as St Peter’s Church on North Main Street (now the Cork Vision Centre) and carry out two pilot schemes for living above the shop – an idea that really took off in Cork.

“John was always a deep thinker on the issues that faced the city and the solutions that should be pursued,” says Pat Ledwidge, former deputy chief executive of Cork City Council. “He was a strong advocate of community/stakeholder engagement, a legacy that continued after his retirement. He also had a deep understanding of the democratic mandate held by elected members.”

The centre held

Fearful of Cork city losing out to the suburbs, O’Donnell encouraged developments such as the Paul Street and Merchants Quay shopping centres to consolidate city centre retail. He was behind the city council’s appeal against the Douglas Court shopping centre in the southern suburbs, which resulted in its scale being reduced. He also had major reservations about Mahon Point shopping centre.

He found the conservatism of the local housing market exasperating and joked that the average person in Cork seemed to want “a bungalow on a half-acre site in Patrick Street, preferably with a view of the sea, and they’re compromising from that point onwards”. He remained devoted to the idea of a living city, with local shops and, in Cork’s case, such artisan treasures as the English Market.

O’Donnell was a founder member of the Irish Planning Institute in 1975, and served as its president in 1989-1990. He took a break from Cork in 1982 to participate in a government-sponsored programme working as a consultant to an Irish construction firm in Baghdad, where he developed an admiration for traditional Iraqi courtyard houses, which were cleverly designed to stay cool in summer.

He was a keen tennis player until later in life.

John O’Donnell is survived by his wife, Anne; sons Tom and Hugh; daughters Ellie, Sarah and Jessica; daughters-in-law Simone and Marianne; sons-in-law Barry and John; and grandchildren Nora, Finn, Theo, Jesse, Lucy, Louis, Felicity, Leonora and Naomi.