Community Gardens

This morning I was at the Cherry Orchard Community Garden, for a talk on Planning your Winter Vegetable Growing, organised by Dublin Community Growers.

I’m a terrible gardener. I put in short bursts of activity, then do nothing for weeks. But the amazing thing is, despite my neglect, things still grow. Put a seed in the ground and a few months later you’ll have flowers, or food for your dinner – some of the time anyway.

Too many tomato plants

Community gardens are a great idea. If you don’t have the space yourself, or don’t know what to do, you can work on a joint project with your neighbours. They’re a great antidote to online life – outdoors, meeting people, working and learning together. And you end up with food, plus a very concrete understanding of your environment. There’s a new community garden opening in Crumlin, in Pearse Park – if you live nearby, maybe see if you can get involved?

Liffey Cycle Route

Liffey Cycle Route protest with the Dublin Cycling Campaign

The Dublin Cycling Campaign recently held their first Liffey Cycle Route protest since early 2020. The route has been proposed, opposed, planned, and sent back to planners, many times over the last ten years. I’ve lost track of all the different drafts that have gone through, and I don’t often cycle along the Liffey, so it was interesting to see how much has changed since the last protest, and where the problems remain.
It was hard to get a good sense of the changes in the group cycle, it was a quiet Sunday morning and we were taking the lane in a lot of places, so I went to google maps to compare the north quays from the park to O’Connell street. (The south quays will have to wait for another time)

Parkgate Street is a big improvement. There used to be a shared bus/bike lane full of parked cars, followed by parking inside the bus lane. Now there is a parking-protected cycle lane.

The fork in the road approaching the Aisling hotel is still a problem, and all the way through the junction with Heuston bridge you are on your own.

Things improve again at the Croppies’ Acre, with narrow, but protected, cycle lanes on both sides of the road.

Wolfe Tone Quay is massively improved – car lane out, two-way protected cycle lane in.

All is good until Ellis Quay, where the cycle lane disappears because, hey, it’s interfering with cars. You don’t mind sharing with left-turning vans, do you?

The painted cycle lane along Arran Quay is now protected, although there are gaps. The weirdest section of the route though, is the change from Arran Quay to Inns Quay. First… why this unprotected stretch, with cars pulling in to park, some of them on the path?

And then, why make cyclists switch to a (very nice, wide, protected) lane on the other side of the road?

Cyclists pretty much have to stop at the junction and wait for the lights to change so they can move to the other side of the road. Why?

(Obviously, this is still a massive improvement on the 2019 murderstrip)

The cycle lane is lovely once you’re on it, and continues all the way down past the Ha’penny Bridge, so a good stretch.

Then it just… stops. And the cars that were on your left, on the other side of bollards, are merging into you, and squeezing past a traffic island. It’s all paint from there to O’Connell Street – work is starting now on Eden Quay so I’ll stop there.

Overall, there is a huge improvement since 2019. (I wonder why?) There are long stretches of good cycle lane that you’d be happy to let anyone cycle on. Private car lanes, and car parking, have been removed in places, and progress is being made. But equally, there are sections where the safety of cyclists is being sacrificed for the convenience of drivers.

The hierarchy of road users is simple – pedestrians and cyclists, then public transport, then private vehicles. But the attitude in both the planning department and sections of the council chamber is that a direct route along the quays for private cars must be preserved at all costs. We’re offered disappearing cycle lanes, or a plan to spend millions on boardwalks to make more space, but not the obvious solution. If there’s no room for bikes, buses, and cars on parts of the quays, then the cars have to go.

Cois Abhann Biodiversity Centre

Last year, as part of the Chapelizod Festival, Éanna Ní Lamhna brought a group on a biodiversity walk along the Liffey. It was a fascinating evening – we didn’t walk very far, because it seemed like every few steps there was something new to talk about, some insects or plants that opened up a whole world of science and folklore.

The crowd eating out of the palm of her hand

Just downstream from where we walked, a new biodiversity centre will be opening soon. Liffey Vale House is being rebuilt, with a classroom, cafe, and toilets, and the grounds will be a mix of gardens and natural wilderness. You can see the plans here (PDF). It should be a great spot to bring kids to learn about biodiversity, and will attract tourists cycling out along the Liffey, or coming from Phoenix Park.

Wonderful Walkinstown

Picking litter with the Make Walkinstown Great group

I’ve lived in Walkinstown with my family for over twenty years, but in some ways it took the pandemic to make me appreciate it properly. We have everything we need in the neighbourhood – parks, a library, and a great range of shops and cafes.

Some of the festival committee, with Lord Mayor Caroline Conroy

Helping to organise the Wonderful Walkinstown Festival was one way for me to give something back to the community. It was great to see how many community groups were there with their stands, and how many local businesses were happy to support us. We’ll be back at the end of August, even bigger and better!

One problem we had on the day was safe access to the park. Lidl and O’Neills on Walkinstown Avenue were kind enough to let people park there for the festival, but there is no pedestrian crossing between there and the park. Families with children were waiting for gaps in the traffic before running across the road – something that happens there every day, not just during the festival.

I’ve requested a pedestrian crossing at this spot – I’m still waiting for a decision from the council. But it’s not just here. Many of the roads in Walkinstown are unsafe because there is too much traffic, and drivers are using residential streets as a shortcut. Between the Long Mile Road and Walkinstown Avenue, between Walkinstown Road and Cromwellsfort Road, between Cromwellsfort Road and Crumlin village, we’ve all seen the cars speeding through, saving them a couple of minutes but making our streets more dangerous.

We need safer streets – in Walkinstown, and all across the city. It should be possible to push a buggy or a wheelchair down the path without being forced onto the road by inconsiderately-parked cars. Everyone should be able to get around their neighbourhood safely, on foot or on a bike. Cleaner, quieter, safer streets are better for everyone.

Rivers and Rain

I was at a meeting in March organised by the Protection of Water Bodies office in Dublin City Council, to discuss two new trials of Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) along the Dodder.

As part of the EU Water Framework Directive, all rivers, lakes, and coastal waters are assessed, and given a grade from High to Bad. A High quality river has clean water, and a healthy ecosystem in and alongside the river. The Dodder is only at Moderate status, and needs to be brought up to at least Good.

When landscape is in a natural state, most rainwater is absorbed by the ground, and makes its way into rivers very slowly.

We’re all familiar with the fact that deforestation leads to flooding – when trees are cut down and the land is cleared, it won’t hold as much water. When it rains, the water flows into the rivers too quickly, causing flooding downstream. In rural areas, we’ve drained wetlands, removing a natural sponge, and water flowing off grasslands often carries nutrients from fertiliser, causing algal growth in rivers and killing fish.

In urban areas, rainwater runs straight off concrete and tarmac into drains. Too much rainwater – and at this stage it doesn’t take much – and the rainwater spills over into the sewage system and washes that into the river. But even ‘pure’ rainwater is carrying rubber particles (from car tyres) and other surface pollutants into the river.

So, the aim of a sustainable drainage system is to slow the movement of rainwater into the rivers, to stop flooding and mixing with sewage, and to filter the water on the way. There are two prototype developments being worked on along the Dodder river, both of which should start construction in late 2023 or early 2024.

All of the rainwater on Eglinton Road flows into a single storm drain, which then flows into the Dodder. At the moment, all of the surfaces on the road are hard – concrete and tarmac – and the water flows right off. The proposal is to install permeable surfaces on the cycle lanes and parking spaces, allowing water to soak into the ground. More soil will be exposed around trees, and there will be new planting, also allowing water to soak in. Some water will still make its way into the storm drain, but at a slower rate, and the plants and soil will filter out some of the particle pollutants.

Milltown Road is closer to the Dodder, and right now rainwater flows directly from the gutters through a drain into the river. The proposal is to direct the water into shallow ditches and basins in the park. Water will collect in these areas during wet weather, soak into the ground and be absorbed by plants. Less water will flow into the river, and the plants will benefit from having water available during dry spells.

Other trials are going ahead on the river Santry (which has worse water quality). These nature-based solutions can then be applied all across Dublin, and help us restore life to our rivers.

Not My Bag

Not My Bag is a film made by Beta Bajcart and Olga Tiernan, two women from Crumlin involved in the Crumlin Community Cleanup group. It looks at the use of single-use plastic, particularly in food wrapping, and the balance between individual, corporate, and political responsibility for the problems of litter and pollution.

I was at the film launch in Crumlin College at the end of March – it was a great event, huge turn-out from the community and a very interesting documentary and discussion.

A lot of the film is about shopping. Most of us do most of our shopping in supermarkets, and they seem to wrap everything in single-use plastic. In the film, Olga and Beta went to The Green Door market in Bluebell, where they could get loose fruit and vegetables, but that’s too awkward for their regular shopping. (Small Changes in Inchicore wasn’t mentioned, but they sell loose veg, refills of dried food and liquids, and a vegetable delivery box.)

One of the slogans used in the film is #livelikeyourgran and it got me thinking about how we used to shop when I was a kid (yes, I am old). There was a small grocers a few minutes walk from our house, Wiggies on Willington Green, where we used to get our vegetables and eggs (some of the veg was grown there, and you could see the hens wandering around on the other side of the gate). It was all bought loose, of course, bring your own bag. Meat was bought from the butchers. Milk, cheese, cereal, canned food… from another shop. But over the years, gradually we moved to buying almost everything from the supermarket – everything in one place, cheaper, more choices, one big shop for the week instead of buying a day or two at a time. And as more people did that, the local greengrocers started closing down.

It’s also sowing season now, so I’ve been planting seeds and following along with The GIY Diaries. One of the themes of the GIY movement is that we need to get back in touch with local, natural cycles – to think about what food is in season here, where we live, and eat that. That’s also something that changed as we started buying more from supermarkets – we got used to the idea that everything should be available, all the time. If strawberries aren’t in season here, ship them in from somewhere else. We plan our meals around this assumption of universal availability, rather than starting with what is in season.

Where am I going with all this? I don’t know… except maybe to think that it isn’t a matter of individual action OR community action OR government action – it’s all necessary. We all, as individuals, have to think about our attitude to food, and the price we pay for convenience. As communities, we have to make local shops a priority (and make space for community gardens where we can get back in touch with natural growing cycles). Supermarkets and suppliers have to take on the cost of the packaging they produce, and support local suppliers rather than shipping (or flying!) produce across the world. And governments have to act, to support local tillage farmers, rather than the cash crop of dairy exports, and make the better choices easier for everyone.

Homes for All

My dad lived in Drimnagh when he was young. Before he was born, his family lived in a one-room tenement on Digges Street, but in the early 1940s, they moved to a newly-built Dublin Corporation house on Sperrin Road. Three bedrooms, running water and an indoor toilet, a garden of their own.

As the years went by, the council built fewer and fewer new houses, and they sold off a lot of their stock to tenants. A good deal for the tenants, but a bad deal for people who need social housing. Somewhere along the line, we started to think that housing policy should be about creating new homeowners, that government should be helping people onto a property investment ladder. But housing policy should be about providing people with good quality, affordable, secure places to live, not investments.

Since the Green Party went into government, we have started building cost-rental housing, and it is massively popular. But we need to build thousands of these homes every year, not hundreds, all over the city, so people have homes they can afford, in places they want to live, and aren’t at the mercy of private landlords.

Home Energy Improvements

In October 2022, we got external insulation on our house, and added solar panels. We already had double-glazing, and I’d added more attic insulation in September. Our house went from a C rating in the summer to a B1 when the work was finished.  

Over the winter, we used 40% less gas than the year before (some of that is because we switched to an electric cooker). There were still cold days, when we’d have the heating on for 3 or 4 hours, but in general the house stayed warmer. The mornings never seemed as cold. 

Winter is the worst time for solar – we use around 200 kWh a month, and in December the panels only generated 40. We actually used more electricity in November/December 2022 than in 2021, because of the electric cooker. But every month the days get longer and brighter, I think over the course of the year we’ll generate about ¾ as much electricity as we use. We don’t have a battery, so some of that will be exported back to the grid – we get paid 24 cent for each unit we send back.  

Altogether, the work cost us €20,000, 13 for the insulation and 7 for the solar panels. The solar panels will pay for themselves first, in maybe 7 or 8 years. They are guaranteed for 25 years (and will keep producing electricity after that, just not as much), so they really make sense if you can afford the upfront costs. (If you can’t, look up Solar as a Service, for companies that will put in the panels and charge you a monthly fee) The insulation will take longer to pay off, but will last as long as the house. 

Getting Your Home Retrofitted 

The SEAI page has a list of the grants available for home energy improvements. In a terraced house, there are grants of €3,500 for external insulation, in a semi-detached house it’s €6,000. Solar PV grants start at €900 and go up to €2,400. We have 3kWp solar panels, the only thing I’d do differently about the project would be to get more panels, 4kWp or even 5kWp.  

All that does presume that you own your own home, and can put some of your money towards the work. People in private rented accommodation are in a real bind – they can’t get the work done themselves, and their landlords aren’t bothered because they won’t benefit. If you’re in a council house, the situation is better. There are hundreds of Dublin City Council houses being retrofitted at the moment, but there are 12,000 homes to do across the city so it will take some time. 

Most of the government funding for retrofits is being spent on free retrofits, rather than grants for partial funding. The Warmer Homes Scheme is a free scheme for people who own their own homes, but are in receipt of certain welfare payments – Fuel Allowance, Working Family payment, Disability allowance, and others. The scheme pays for attic and wall insulation, and can include windows and heating systems. Like other retrofit projects – like all construction projects right now – there is a shortage of people to do the work, but you should send in your application if eligible and get the process started.  

Greening the City

On St Brigid’s Day, the Lord Mayor of Dublin held an event in the Mansion House called Nature in the City. Speakers included Professor Jane Stout from Trinity College, co-founder of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, Lorraine Bull, the Dublin City Council Biodiversity Officer, Hannah Hamilton, advisor to the Minister for Heritage, and Tina Roche, from Community Foundation for Ireland.

When we talk about the climate crisis, we often focus on the issue of carbon dioxide emissions and rising global temperatures, and all that goes with that – and those are serious enough issues on their own. The loss of global biodiversity is just as serious, and of course the two are related. Rising temperatures, on land and at sea, are destroying ecosystems and killing species. Clearing forested land, or draining peatland, for agriculture removes wildlife habitat but also turns carbon sinks into carbon emitters.  

As one of the panelists above said, maybe we think more about emissions because they are easier to fit into an economic framework. Building wind farms instead of gas plants, building railway lines instead of roads… these are engineering projects that can be designed in an office, spending decisions that can be put on a balance sheet. But the best way to protect nature is to leave it alone, and not attempt to extract anything from it. To treat it as an end in itself, not a resource to be managed with a quantifiable payback.  

At a local level, there’s a lot you can do. If you have a garden, don’t use weedkillers or pesticides, and leave some space for nature in the garden – a patch that you don’t mow, or mow just once a year. Some weeds will grow, but they may be the plants that butterflies and other insects need to lay eggs on, or feed on. Plant native trees and flowers, because they are the plants that native wildlife has adapted to live with.  See the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan site for more ideas.

Outside your home, write to your local parks department, and local politicians, asking for more space for nature. Again, ask that areas be left unmowed, and that native trees and flowers are planted, instead of non-native and sterile ornamental plants. Local councils say that they have to keep things ‘tidy’ or people will complain. Let them know that you’ll complain if they tidy away the wildlife.  

On a global level, two of the major threats to wildlife are agriculture and intensive fishing. Our high-meat diet means that land is cleared for animals to graze, and more land is cleared for supplemental food crops. Factory fishfarms, and factory fishing ships, are wiping out sea life. Reducing the meat and fish in your diet, and pressuring the government to stop supporting destructive practices, are two steps everyone can take.