Coal Quay



From a base at the recently opened Plugd Records on Cornmarket Street in Cork City, Ailbhe Cunningham is working with the local independent music community to Re-imagine Elderhood via a mixture of walking tours, musical performance and co-design workshops. Cornmarket Street is one of the few surviving networks of independent businesses and homes on the central island of Cork City.

Ailbhe is a Cork-based architect, interested in the complex dynamics shaping our urban environments. She works collaboratively with communities of place and interest and engages in cross-disciplinary collaboration and participatory knowledge exchange to generate resilient, regenerative urban landscapes. A co-creator of TEST SITE project, she is deeply committed to nature and community engagement, recognising the necessity of collaboration to envision resilient, future urban landscapes.



SOA’s open call invited a moment of structured engagement with the issues experienced and present in Cork City. An opportunity to proactively prepare for elderhood: to take a hands-on community-led approach to exploring the topic is what drew Ailbhe to the Open Call, and the participants to the co-design process and workshop series.

Due to the ongoing supply and demand issues of both living and working spaces, cultural communities continuously navigate precarious and uncertain relationships with urban environments throughout their careers. For the purpose of this co-design process, the identified project group shares a professional interest – the performance and promotion of independent music in Cork City. This cultural community regularly contributes to the city centre but more often than not, due to limited access to appropriate facilities or financially viable living and working spaces, have to commute to and from the city centre.

Throughout this process the lived and learned experience of the group sets the valued position from which to understand, imagine and propose regenerative urban landscapes for ageing in Cork City. The co-design and participatory process considers the potential of Cornmarket Street for future residents and businesses alike. Throughout the process the participating cultural agents became spatial agents – considering the question set by SOA:

‘What kind of places do we need to
live well as we age, and how can aspects
of our neighbourhoods be modified
to support ageing well?’



Located within an Architectural Conservation Area (ACA), remnants of Cork City’s architectural and civic past are woven through and around Cornmarket Street, also locally known as the Coal Quay Market. This urban streetscape remains home to some of Cork’s oldest residents and business owners alike. It is one of the few surviving networks of independent businesses and residential homes on the central island of Cork City. In 2020 it became home to independent music, through the opening of a record shop, gig venue and café, Plugd Records.

Ailbhe deliberately extended the invitation to this community of interest – beginning with their community-led vision for elderhood in the city. Creative practitioners industriously weave and navigate their way through precarity – uncertain contracts, living and working conditions and circumstances throughout their young and middle age. Ailbhe was interested to see how they might apply some of the processes and skills that they have learnt through practice and lived experience to community-led design for the built environment. Not isolating musicians in a way that they are a special category of city inhabitant but that they are living and working in a very particular type of way.

The co-design process began with an open call invitation that went out through the Plugd Records to the community who engage with the shop on a regular basis. An initial briefing was held by email and subsequently in person, an introductory meeting was held in the café, a familiar place of meeting. It quickly became clear that individuals had shared the same concerns and interests in relation to their place in the city and that there was an interest to examine this topic in a collective and structured manner.


Workshops: Walking Tours, Music Performance & Co-Design Workshops

Each co-design workshop activity came with a purpose to deepen the collective understanding of, and individual attitudes towards elderhood – the first workshop identified individual priorities across the group and subsequently gathered and collated a set of common priorities. In this first workshop a walking route was also defined, a route constructed of memories and experiences of the city that emerged through conversation – participant reflection on their experience of the surroundings nearby, their experience of Cornmarket Street, the Coal Quay and neighbouring areas.

The following three workshops, each involved a walking tour. The first walking tour was preceded by a collective reading of the 2005 Cornmarket Street Area Action Plan. Almost 20 years in circulation, the action plan provides an overview of strategic development and urban realm strategies specific to the Cornmarket Street Area. In reading this plan, and in particular the sections it contained relating to Public Realm, participants were surprised to see some of the forward planning and policy documents that had resulted in the physical improvements on the streets around them. Secondly, participants were drawn to areas that had not progressed, highlighting areas of interest including the laneways, the proposed pocket park & square and identified development sites around Cornmarket.

Each walking tour traversed the same route but included varied moments of pause and focused on different themes and topics including the public realm, community assets and resources and housing. Live improvised music performances from workshop participants were introduced to activate the streetscape at each of the stopping points. This activity allowed the group to comfortably stop, experience and consider their surroundings within the context of questions and scenarios specific to the workshop themes. The act or performance allowed us to congregate in a sustained and deliberate manner. In parallel it also tested the city and its ability to support alternative activities across a variety of public realm conditions.

The walking tour included stopping points at busy junctions along the market street and the quays and also included quieter stopping points, for example in the laneways outside the Corporation Building Housing on Dalton’s Avenue and vacant structures along Kyrls and Kyles Street. The final walking tour route was slightly extended to include a guided visit to a social housing scheme on Blarney Street with an Architect from the City Architect’s Department. During this extended walking tour parallels were drawn between the historical provision of the Corporation Buildings on Dalton’s Avenue and the present day provision of Social and affordable Housing in Cork City centre.


As with the co-design workshop process, the public dissemination was interdisciplinary. A two day conversation on Elderhood was hosted between Plugd Records and TEST SITE project. The public events included nightly screenings of the Reimagining Elderhood film paired with live music performances from participating musicians. An interactive exhibition was displayed including visuals by Ailbhe Cunningham and Annie Mar. The exhibition illustrates the results of the co-design process and includes prompts for visitors to contribute to the process and its findings. Visitors to the exhibition are invited to bring their own perspectives and insights to the information gathered through the focused co-design working groups. This resulted in a questions and answers dialogue occurring between strangers over two days and across the three events.

A daytime conversation took place during the second day of public dissemination, during which the attending public considered in more detail the next steps towards real change in actioning the insights from the co-design process and attainable, community led preparation for elderhood in our local neighbourhood, Cork City centre.


Workshop participants identified key priorities during the co-design process. These are outlined alongside sites for development and future consideration. Responding to the Area Action Plan, the potential area of development were categorised as follows:

_Adapt / Public Space?
_Develop / Cooperative Resources?
_Diversify / housing & enterprise?

In addition to the architectural analysis, Annie Mar created a series of illustrations in response to workshop voice recordings. Annie Mar’s illustrations capture the overarching thoughts and experiences of participants that emerged throughout the workshop process. This visual harvest shows a small few of the many possibilities and places collectively imagined for Cork city.


This period of co-design engagement and research allowed a specific community of interest to gather and analyse their built environment. The workshop series made visible the collective interest amongst the workshop participants to further examine the themes of elderhood and space for cultural agents in the city. The priorities identified by the working group, and voted on by the public dissemination event attendees, further highlight the need for stable, secure and appropriate living and working amenities from early age, through middle age, through to elderhood.

It is clear that we must think collectively and intergenerationally as the improvements in meeting the needs for elderhood will have a direct and positive impact on those intergenerationally. Ailbhe is a founding member of Cork Community Land Trust, an emerging, cross-disciplinary group investigating alternative community-led methods and structures for providing housing and amenities in Ireland. She will continue to collaborate with the community of Cork to pilot and establish resilient, community – led visions for Cork city which consider elderhood amongst other pertinent themes.