Growing pains: The Dublin community gardens under threat

As the housing crisis deepens, allotments are being earmarked for development

Inner-city allotments: Richard Stearn and Samantha McCaffrey of the Weaver Square Community Garden

Inner-city allotments: Richard Stearn and Samantha McCaffrey of the Weaver Square Community Garden

 

It’s been a great year for the raspberries on John McEvoy’s allotment. He waited three years to get his hands in the soil and it felt like a gift. Although there isn’t much soil. You hit tarmac when you dig deep down in any direction, he says. 

November is Food Month in The Irish Times, with food-related articles in all our sections, plus reader events, competitions and exclusive content at irishtimes.com/foodmonth
November is Food Month in The Irish Times, with food-related articles in all our sections, plus reader events, competitions and exclusive content at irishtimes.com/foodmonth

McEvoy is one of a new generation of people growing food in city allotments. “People invest a huge amount of time and love and care to the allotments. They add so much to the area. I really liked that it was on the road. I’d driven past it, cycled or ran past it so often.” His landlord would allow him only one raised bed in a shady part of the garden so getting a plot at Springvale Allotments in Dublin’s Chapelizod was a joy.

McEvoy knew it would be temporary. Because of his job with the homeless agency Sophia Housing, he is fine with the reason for being told to down tools and leave. Springvale is one of three sites on land owned by Dublin City Council being squeezed out by housing. Allotment holders are being told they have to walk away from their vegetables, fruits and flowers because of the housing crisis. 

“I was delighted to have it even for a short space of time,” McEvoy says. He can only speak for himself but he was warned by a council official that his allotment lease would be ending in October.

McEvoy recently oversaw 29 families moving into rapid-build housing in Drimnagh. The homes are “near passive” standard for energy and have solar panels on the roof. So he’s very happy to see Springvale going to a similar housing idea. “I’m saying this as someone who loves his allotment and is sorry to see it go.” He is hopeful that the council will allocate them another site near the Liffey. 

I was one of the first allotment holders given a key to Weaver Square back in 2011. The project brought life, bees, food, trees, flowers and a family of foxes to a derelict place

On Cork Street in the south inner-city, McEvoy’s office window overlooks another allotment site on which the axe is due to fall at the end of next month. The allotments at Weaver Square are being taken back by the council for 100 rapid-build homes. But McEvoy believes Weaver Square is different from Springvale. “It’s such a small site in an area that doesn’t have green space,” he says. “If you take away green space it traumatises a community. I would worry that moving Weaver Square will cause a trauma that won’t be seen. It is something beautiful where people have been investing time and care. My office window looks out on the new park and the allotments. It’s quite a sight.”

McEvoy’s view includes some soil into which (full disclosure) I poured plenty of amateurish effort over the years. I was one of the first allotment holders given a key to Weaver Square back in 2011 when the council trucked up soil from a football pitch in Kildare and spread it out over rubble. The project brought life, bees, food, trees, flowers and a family of foxes to a derelict place. I gave up my allotment a few years ago but my old patch still has the raspberry canes, horseradish and mint growing on it. The last two species given to me by a late friend who warned me not to plant them in open ground. The threatened closure of Weaver Square has hit an emotional nerve with many people in the neighbourhood, highlighting a chronic lack of green space, and a feeling that planners disregard the life that communities created during the downturn. 

“We want to see a fair, transparent public planning process,” Samantha McCaffrey from the Weaver Square Community Garden group told a public meeting on Monday, saying they were getting no answers on when the new houses would be built. And they are refusing to leave the site. “We planted flowers,” her colleague Ivanna Chovgan, who runs therapeutic sessions in the community garden, told the meeting. “We planted spring bulbs.” 

The Weaver Square community garden in Dublin 8 is set to be built on
The Weaver Square community garden in Dublin 8 is set to be built on

Sam Moore, another allotment holder, sees Weaver Square as a continuation of a family tradition. Growing up in inner-city Belfast, his grandfather had an allotment and he has childhood memories which he sees his own children re-creating for themselves now. “My 15-minute walk to creche is past building sites and heavy traffic. Our children love that the allotment is only three minutes’ walk from our house. Our four-year-old has learnt where food comes from, how it grows, has planted the onions, potatoes and peas. He would far rather play and dig in the allotments than go to Weaver Park across the street.” 

A different dispute has seen environmental activist Kaethe Burt-O’Dea leave the community garden on Sitric Road in Stoneybatter after bringing the tiny space back from a tip “with a broken-up couch, big pieces of rubbish, bottles and trash” to a composting garden and wild-bee sanctuary.  

A group of neighbours cleaned up the corner garden in 2005 after efforts to find the owner failed. “We’ve been stewarding that site for over 13 years,” Burt-O’Dea says. The garden became a hub for the neighbourhood, she says, a meeting place for residents, and won many awards from the council, Conservation Volunteers Ireland, GIY Ireland and others. They won €10,000 in funding and invested it into the garden in things such as a new gate, composting, rainwater collection equipment, and raised beds and plants. 

A few months ago, Burt O’Dea was told by an agent that the owner of the house had died and the house was being sold. Within a few days of a piece appearing in The Irish Times about it being a house for nature lovers, Burt-O’Dea received a lawyer’s email instructing her to remove all belongings immediately and the lock on the gate was changed. “We didn’t want to jeopordise other people’s attempt to get land from people on a temporary basis,” Burt-O’Dea says. They didn’t want to cause a fight with whoever the future buyer of the house would be. “Who wants to do that on a site where you’re going to be neighbours?” 

“After 13 years of caring for the site it’s just such a kick in the teeth,” she says. “I’m not worried about the community gardening spirit moving on.” But she feels there has been a failure to recognise the value of what grew out of a tiny, unloved pocket of soil. 

You get people coming down who wouldn’t know a daffodil from a dahlia and then they go on to do level five and six courses in the Botanic Gardens

Ronnie McConnell was one of the founders of Muck and Magic off Ballymun Road in north Dublin nearly eight years ago. A wheelchair-user, he has gardened from his chair for years and was looking after the garden in an old folks’ home next door when he and Maire Hurley decided to try and turn the site into a community garden. 

It has been a big success. But, at a meeting with the council recently, they discovered the site was up for sale. “They told us it won’t be sold for another two or three years,” McConnell says, but that’s not guaranteed. Plans to establish a city farm across the road are in train and McConnell is hopeful the Muck and Magic garden can move there. “A city farm would be a great draw for Ballymun.”

Muck and Magic has received help from the corporate sector. In September, insurance surveyors from LexisNexis helped to build a sensory garden for other wheelchair users. More than 150 people from Aer Lingus – “pilots, cleaners, stewards” – all came one day to tidy and garden. “A lot of effort has gone into this garden.” A group from the Irish Stock Exchange built a gazebo where they hold all their teaching sessions. 

“You get people coming down who wouldn’t know a daffodil from a dahlia and then they go on to do level five and six [courses] in the Botanic Gardens. We get a lot of different nationalities, people from Romania, Africa, Sweden and they all bring different ideas about food here.” 

They recycle everything, have a composting system using several bays to make compost from cuttings, and grow all the food organically. Anyone who helps in the garden can take home as much produce as they like, he says. “It will be sad when it goes. It’s well-established and all the people in the neighbourhood, they love it.”

Dublin City Farm is still waiting to get its land, McConnell says. So he is hopeful that their site will take a long time to sell and they’ll have somewhere to go when it does. “It brings people out of themselves. You see them coming in, and as they turn the corner they’re just smiling as they come in.”

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