How do you solve a problem like Clongriffin?

 

The bubble burst leaving the new north Dublin suburb in the lurch. Now designers and architects are figuring out what can be done to create a sense of community, writes Environment Editor FRANK McDONALD

SO WHAT do you do with a place that’s merely a fragment of what was planned? Clongriffin, on the north fringe of Dublin, was supposed to have a population of 30,000 to 40,000, with all the communal facilities they would need. But construction ground to a halt when the bubble burst, leaving the area’s residents high and dry.

Enter Designing Dublin, a unique initiative by Design 21st Century, founded by Jean Byrne and Jim Dunne, who are both members of the Crafts Council of Ireland with backgrounds in business. Dunne was inspired by an exhibition at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art about how design could address current challenges.

They brought in Vannesa Ahuactzin, a young American architect who did a year’s programme at the Institute Without Boundaries in Toronto, which specialises in design innovation and inter-professional collaboration.

“We see the designer as a problem solver with the ability to effect positive change for humanity,” says its website.

The outcome was Designing Dublin: learning to learn, a pilot project to show how it’s possible to bring together people from different backgrounds to work together intensively for three months – an experience that would be transformational for them and “could transform this country in the next five years”, according to Jean Byrne.

“A lot of people are now volunteering to work overseas, but we need to get things done here as well. Unemployed architects and engineers could get involved in this kind of work all over the country, building and shaping a whole new way of doing things. If we could get even 10 per cent of those unemployed, it could really transform Ireland.”

With the support of Dublin city manager John Tierney and former Accenture chairman Terry Neill, who’s now on the board of CRH plc, the project developed legs. More than 100 people applied to take part, and 17 – divided equally between the public and private sectors – were selected following the personal ordeal of a day-long interview.

The chosen theme of the project was to “find the hidden potential of place”, and the challenge was to apply this to Clongriffin, a place that barely exists. Apart from all the new apartments, its main “boulevard” has just five businesses operating – a Chinese takeaway, an off-licence, a chemist, a hairdressing salon and (what else?) a Centra.

All of the remaining retail units are vacant, giving the boulevard a desolate air. “We realised there was a lot of wastage in this country during the Celtic Tiger years,” says Vannesa. “So in working on Clongriffin, we wanted to see what is there to tap into, to engage residents in taking ownership of area, make it more interesting.”

The 17-strong project team, ranging in age from 21 to 53, set about trying to understand the place by talking to the people who live there. Not surprisingly in a new area, many of them felt isolated – but many were also keen to get involved in building a community spirit, especially as they are now pretty well locked into living in Clongriffin.

Working with kids (no less than 13 nationalities are represented there) in the two prefab schools, the team gave them a series of images of things in the area, asked them to draw a picture of their favourite place, and ended up with a series of paintings that were put on exhibition in a vacant shop which was turned into a café for a day.

“We only had Thermos flasks and paper mugs, but it was very, very successful,” Jean recalls. “Parents came along, of course, and even curious teenagers walked in and started participating. In no time we had all these conversations going about what they’d like to see happening in Clongriffin.”

One thing the locals are very proud of is Father Collins Park, which Dublin City Council opened last May, with five wind turbines to generate electricity.

At 52 acres, roughly twice the area of St Stephen’s Green, it was designed by Argentinian architects Abelleyro + Romero, who won an open competition for the €20 million project in 2003.

“The park is a huge asset, people are really inspired by it so that’s very good at building optimism,” says Vannesa. But the Designing Dublin team found that the children also wanted access to “wild nature” – like the pond with swans in it half-way along an unfinished pathway to the coast. For them, this is a magical place.

One of the five projects selected for detailed study by a sub-group is to complete the missing link of 300 metres, so that Clongriffin residents can make use of the trail.

The aim is to get them directly involved in the project, even designing it themselves, so that the community will have a sense of ownership of this potentially important amenity.

Another project is called Hothouse – essentially, a community centre where people can meet. Prototype designs for this much-needed facility, on a site just south of Father Collins Park, are being worked up by local residents with the aid of four architectural technicians from the DIT School of Architecture. The final scheme might even be built.

Other projects include Grow Local, which aims to help budding entrepreneurs by providing space for them to develop their ideas, using one or other of the many vacant retail units as a base.

Gerry Gannon, who owns most of the development land in Clongriffin, is said to be sympathetic to the idea of making premises available.

Another sub-group is looking at Local Expression, which is essentially about enlivening the area and perhaps even transforming some of the areas of wasteland left over after the boom came to a sudden end. This might include painting hoardings around the sites and turning them into art objects, like the gable murals in Belfast.

Finally, residents felt there was a need for a “communications exchange” to let people know what’s going on.

They already have a website (www.clongriffinresidents.com) and big billboards packed with local information, but the more innovative ideas include messages in the sky, given that it’s visible on the approach to Dublin Airport.

End-of-project activities this Saturday from 11am to 9pm include a “60-minute makeover”, transforming an empty shop beside Centra on Clongriffin’s main street into a prototype community “hothouse”, an exhibition of models made by local children showing how they see the future, and to cap it all, an an “imagination celebration”.