Monday 24 October 2016

Community gardens offer invaluable resources to Dublin locals

Rian Coulter from NCAD students' union and Tony Lowth of Dublin Community Growers
Rian Coulter from NCAD students' union and Tony Lowth of Dublin Community Growers

Community gardens are fertile grounds for much more than just food production. We highlight two initiatives that offer invaluable resources to Dublin locals.

"Jaysus where did you get them legs?" asks Mick Hooper when I arrive at Flanagan's Field Community Garden, a rare, and totally unique, green space off Cork Street on the former site of Fatima Mansion's Block E flats.

"I grew them myself," I quip with mock-pride.

Mick's a man who knows all about growing things yourself - or, rather, yourselves.

He's one of some 100 locals who have keys to the community garden that was established in 2010 by Rialto's Back of the Pipes Residents' Association, with the help of the local council.

Besides being a keen gardener, Mick also acts as caretaker to the now-fertile site which his terraced house overlooks.

Today, Mick shares his street with three generations of Hoopers, but he himself lived most of his life in Block E before it was demolished in the mid-2000s.

The levelled foundations of his former home now act as an unlikely base for one of Dublin's most innovative horticultural spaces - a beautiful and futuristic-looking timber-and-polythene geodesic 'Grow Dome', in which a soil-free hydroponic system uses harvested rainwater, solar power and the nightly heat from a double-barrelled wood-burning stove to grow nutritious and potentially profitable food year-round.

Niall O’Brien at the Geodesic Dome on Ruben Street, Dublin 8
Niall O’Brien at the Geodesic Dome on Ruben Street, Dublin 8

"Don't mind me love," Mick adds, completely unnecessarily. "I'm only having a bit of fun with you." With that, he winks and heads back across the street, leaving me in the company of Niall O'Brien and Ivan Rynn.

The pair are two of the five locals responsible for building the Grow Dome, which was officially opened less than a year ago and takes pride of place amongst the raised beds of Flanagans Field. As they talk me through the activities that take place in this space, it becomes clear that there's a whole lot more than a bit of fun to be found in the Grow Dome.

When it's not being used to throw community-based parties or by local bands to shoot music videos, the dome plays host to everything from cookery or gardening classes to art exhibits to music gigs.

There are mother and toddler playgroups, weekly homework clubs which come from the local F2 Community Centre to learn about plants, and local school children who visit to learn about hydroponics.

The all-weather communal space is bringing together people from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. "It used to be that one side of the street would never have talked to the other," says Ivan.

And now that the weekly community garden meetings take place here rather than the local pub, they are more accessible to a wider community, including "the lads from local Mosque", and its Iman, who is a regular visitor to the gardens. Others, Niall adds, "just like to come for a snooze on the couch. It's become a sitting room for the area".

Little surprise that the garden and Grow Dome project were commended in the inaugural Social Responsibility Awards, presented by the Irish Food Writers' Guild earlier this year.

And last month, the Grow Dome team won the Inner City Enterprise (ICE) 'Social Enterprise Grant Scheme Award'. The €15,000 grant will allow them to replicate the success elsewhere, with three more grow domes planned in the next year.

Each will operate as a self-sufficient social enterprise under the banner 'Dome Grown', funding itself through the energy-efficient production and sale of hydroponically grown vegetables. Each will be controlled remotely using cutting-edge technology developed in conjunction with the nearby Digital Skills Academy to allow communities access the necessary know-how to maximise their output in an environmentally friendly way. And, crucially to the vision, each will create one full-time job and at least three training positions per dome.

"We have the maths all worked out," says Niall. "Imagine if every housing estate could earn enough money for a wage, what could you do with that?"

The longer-term ambition is to create 40 domes around the country in five years, with each dome providing the opportunity to create and sustain a full-time "paid pillar of community", who could work on community-related activities for two or three days a week.

Though unique, Flanagans Field is not the only community garden exploring the enormous potential created when formerly derelict spaces are transformed into thriving community resources.

Over on Thomas Street, NCAD's 'Our Farm' community garden is a collaboration between the art college's students' union, lead by Rian Coulter and Fabian Strunden, and the broader local community.

With the help of Tony Lowth of Dublin Community Growers (described by Rian as the "muscle behind the initiative") and greengrocer Jack Roche ("ostensible Mayor of Meath Street" and chairman of the local Community Addiction Programme), the two-acre former car park is now used as a communal space, available to drug rehab groups, young- offender or early school leaver programmes, amongst other community schemes.

Art and design students use the green space as a resource for both recreation and research, and the students' union have co-hosted events involving everything from children's mask-making workshops and inflatable dolmen bouncing castles to live performances from the clubbers' choice, Le Galaxie.

Anyone is welcome to help Tony harness local waste (including surplus produce from market traders and horse manure from the streets) and build his 'no-dig' raised-bed garden. Simply turn up on a Tuesday or Saturday morning from 10am onwards.

Just be prepared that you may end up having significantly more than a little bit of fun!

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