Millions of visitors from all over Ireland brave the frenzy of Dublin’s Ikea every year.
“It is great to be near Ikea, it’s a wonderful shop,” says Stephen Hayden. “But if you have to drag children around Ikea – it could be good to have somewhere peaceful to take them afterwards.”
That’s part of his pitch for putting a city farm in the centre of Ballymun, not far from the giant shop – but it’s only one of many parts.
A city farm would also give an economic boost to the area, and give local children a chance to learn things that urban kids don’t normally learn, he says.
“An educational and recreational facility, a community garden, rare-breed animals, a coffee shop,” says Hayden, a bearded man in a white shirt. He talks with his hands, illustrating the amenities in the air.
“Focusing on the environment and food production, giving people an opportunity to engage with animals both from recreational and a therapeutic point of view,” he says, emphatically.
The farm could help to break down barriers between the generations, and to integrate people who are new to the area. EU research suggests that city farms bring big benefits, he says.
Where it would go is the big question – but Hayden’s making progress on that front, meeting with councillors and council officials to see if there’s a plot of public land that would serve all well.
Roughly four years ago Hayden, who hails from Ballymun, got together with a bunch of other local residents to brainstorm projects for the area.
“We decided to focus on the assets in the community, the positives, and how we might develop a project that played to the strengths of the area,” he says.
Ballymun has good transport links: buses, the nearby motorway – and there’s the promised Santry River Greenway too, he says.
It’s close to the airport and the Botanic Gardens. Dublin City University is down the road, and there’s recreational space at the Axis arts centre.
“Then there is here,” he says, waving his hand. He is sitting in the café of the Rediscovery Centre, a specialist hub for upcycling everything from bikes to clothes.
City plans talk about the importance of green infrastructure, he said. And unlike some other parts of the city, public land is plentiful in Ballymun.
With all that in mind, the group dug into some in-depth research on the benefits of city farms.
What Kind of Farm?
Hayden wants to see a working farm that produces organic food and gives city kids a chance to learn how to rear farm animals.
“It has the potential to be a huge project,” he says. “Now it will take time to evolve.”
If Hayden has his way, there would be a community garden, an orchard, farm animals, a community kitchen, a shop selling organic produce, function rooms and a café.
In the long run, there might be summer camps, horticulture and husbandry courses, after-school projects, and educational projects for children with special needs, he says.
“We would hope this project would provide real learning opportunities for people with intellectual challenges, he says. This is not a gimmick, these should be “real meaty opportunities”.
Hayden says outsiders often have a negative perception of Ballymun. Stigma hurts the community, and this project would draw in outsiders and let them see the place for themselves.
It must be affordable and inclusive for locals too, he says. “How we plan our urban spaces in future and what we build into communities will become increasingly important.”
City farms are common in London. In Hackney, an area of deprivation, they have had one for decades, says Hayden.
They even havea school to teach farming skills as well as core subjects, to young people who might otherwise drop out of school.
“There are different learning styles and the traditional learning style doesn’t always suit so there is huge potential there for alternative education,” says Hayden.
Hayden has others on board.
He’s backed by local teachers, parents groups, community groups, youth projects, education and training boards, and the Ballymun Family Resource Centre, he says, listing them off.
“I think I’ve given presentations to 39 organisations so far,” he says, laughing and shaking his head. “The response was overwhelmingly positive.”
Social Democrats Councillor Mary Callaghan said she commends the passion behind the project. “Lots of people want to get involved in this,” she says.
Some bits of the project could be put together quickly – such as a plan for a community garden. A local one is already looking for a new home, he says.
Other elements, such as an orchard, would obviously take longer.
“You build it incrementally,” says Hayden. “There has to be a sense of ownership and engagement across the broad community, that is what makes it sustainable.”
Dublin City Council owns lots of land in and around Ballymun, and Hayden hopes to persuade it to part with some for this project, he says.
There’s a sweet 13.5-acre site on Balbutcher Lane that he has been eyeing up, he says.
The farm could be part of a larger development there, surrounded by an affordable-housing scheme, for example. “To provide an opportunity for community engagement in the heart of the community, a green place,” he says.
Callaghan says that a meeting between Hayden, councillors and council managers on Tuesday was positive.
Now councillors need to examine the pros and cons of each potential site, taking into account the value of the land and the zoning, she said. Consulting local residents will be key, too.
Sinn Féin Councillor Anthony Connaghan says he backs the plans, seeing them as an important way to educate children about food. “So many people think you go to the supermarket and that is it.”
There’s an alternative plot to the Balbutcher Lane one, a little bit further out, that’s zoned as a park – the farm could probably be developed there quicker, he says.
But Connaghan says he’s impressed by the energy and emotion of the Dublin City Farm committee.
They have persuaded him that this project could provide the heart of Ballymun town centre, he says. “Maybe we have to take a leap of faith.”