In Ballyfermot's Skate Park, a Lesson in Working Together

You might not have heard that much about the new skate park for Ballyfermot. Perhaps because those who live in the area and those working on the project seem to be getting along well.

Last month, the architects who drew up the skate and play park for Le Fanu Park in Ballyfermot met with the local community to hear their views on the final design.

Enriqueta Llabres and Eduardo Rico of architecture and urban design company Relational Urbanism came over from London for the event in Ballyfermot’s Leisure Centre.

Relational Urbanism are set to design the park after winning a competition held by the Irish Architecture Foundation (IAF) last year.

The company did a lot of consultation with people living around there, and Llabres describes this interaction as crucial, because the plan was in need of change.

Since then, the skate park has shifted location in response to some residents’ concerns. The landscaping has been changed to reduce noise. And there’s also more soft landscaping for children who don’t want to skate.

“It will bring benefit for all,” says Llabres. “Now, we are more or less happy with the layout.”

The park is still in the planning stages, but nearly €500,000 in funding is available for the project, between contributions from Dublin City Council and the Matheson Foundation (the Matheson law firm’s philanthropic programme).

Council architects and Llabres are hoping to submit an application for planning permission by September. And, if everything goes smoothly, construction should be completed next year.

The layout is decided but Llabres is eager to continue consultation with the local community about design tweaks. For example, toward the end, features like graffiti could be added, she says.

“It would be nice if a group of young people can somehow join me in the exercise of design,” she says. That’s her plan, but she isn’t quite sure how she’ll do it yet.

Local councillors appear happy with the plans.

Sinn Féin councillor Daithi Doolan said he’s glad young people from Ballyfermot will no longer have to travel to Bushy Park to skate.

“It will help get people to use the facility in their own area and ensure the park is used for something positive,” he says.

A People’s Project

People living in the area have been involved in the project from the start.

The manager of the Ballyfermot Youth Service manager, Gerry McCarthy, says the idea of building a skate park was originally suggested by kids and teens using its adventure service.

They were into mountain biking and skating, he says. And they made a presentation to the South Central Area Committee about their idea two years ago. They’d been lobbying for a skate park since 2011.

A year later, the Matheson Foundation wanted to team up with the IAF to make an investment that would permanently benefit a community.

The funding was there but they needed a local authority and a site, said Nathalie Weadick director of the IAF.

Assistant city manager Brendan Kenny suggested the skate park — which locals kids and teens had given a presentation about — and the plan was taken off the shelf.

People First

The design process was, in a way, a bit unusual in its back-to-frontness.

The IAF wanted to experiment with a “people-first design process”, so it set about learning what people in the area wanted before even setting out the brief.

The organization hosted 30 events. Meetings, workshops and consultations picnics. They talked to local schools, youth services, community centres, residents, gardaí and councillors.

“Last summer my team were out in Ballyfermot all the time,” says Weadick. “The great thing about working with Ballyfermot is there’s a really great community infrastructure. This type of initiative . . . wouldn’t have worked if we had gone into a community that didn’t have that infrastructure.”

Once the brief went out in September, designers submitted their applications and a jury made up of architects and locals picked the shortlist.

“So you had Ger O’Reilly from Ballyfermot Youth Service sitting beside Amica Dall from London, who had just won the Turner Prize,” says Weadick. “It was a really great juxtaposition.”

The four finalists came to Ballyfermot and met children from local schools.

Jennifer Holland, a teacher at St Ultan’s Primary School said having their opinions heard was a boost to the children’s self-esteem.

A Novel Way?

Relational Urbanism won, in part, because they used features such as sand boxes and gaming technology – X-Box Kinect – to get inputs from the community on their designs. Llabres says the consultations were very important.

“We have learned from them and it has benefited the project,” she says. “Without them, the project would have been completely different, that’s for sure.”

McCarthy agrees the idea would never have developed into what it is now without consulting with the local children and teenagers.

“They’ve had a lot of input. It’s brilliant,” he says. “I think they’re meeting-ed out by now.”

In the past, Dublin City Council has been criticised for drawing up plans without consulting councillors or the public.

But Weadick is hopeful the approach to the skate park, with plenty of public consultation from the start to now, might be taken on board by other authorities when they’re looking to do similar projects.

Weadick says the plans for this park have already had a ripple effect in the area.

In Le Fanu Park, beside the site due for a makeover, is an old pavilion that is boarded up, says Weadick. She’s heard that the local community are putting together their own plans to do this up and transform it into a coffee shop and a place where you can fix your bike.

“It’s making people love that area a bit more and want to make it better,” she says. “This is what it’s all about.”

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Louisa McGrath: Louisa McGrath is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lmcgrath@dubinq.com.

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