Near the corner of Mary’s Abbey and Arran Street East, a painted metal fence pens in a small burst of green next to the Luas tracks. Its gates are closed and locked.
Inside, there are still a few trees, some grass. Brownish vines coil up a wooden trellis at the back. Empty bottles and crisp packets litter the ground.
Across the road, Christian Prosser stands behind the counter at his family’s shop, ABC Fishing Tackle. He used to walk his dog – a teacup Yorkshire terrier called Penney – in the tiny garden every morning, he says.
He had a code for the lock, as did the people living in nearby houses.
“They actually kept it quite well,” he says, of the locals who were maintaining it. Then, the locks were changed, and he heard the site was put up for auction.
Records show that in September 2018 it was sold to two limited companies.
Now, a few builders park their vehicles there in the mornings, he says. And the area has gradually filled with rubbish.
The community garden project at Mary’s Abbey opened in 2014. It was a community-led initiative, assisted by the council and landscape-architecture firm Fieldwork & Strategies. The community turned the small site into a temporary garden with flowers and native plants.
Mary’s Abbey garden was always meant to be temporary, according to a council spokesperson. The land was sublet from the council, “as agreed with NAMA”, and people from the community helped with the garden’s design, creation, and upkeep.
After the three-year lease was up, the receivers didn’t renew it, the spokesperson said, and the property was sold.
There are small green spaces like Mary’s Abbey dotted around the city, some still going, some closed for good. Are these things always temporary? What makes some of them successful in the long-term?
Mary’s Abbey Garden
Next door to the fishing shop, at the Oxmantown Cafe, employee Geanina Sfarghie says the area could use more green space.
“There are not many areas around here. There is a park up there,” she motions up the road, towards the garden in Ormond Park. “But it is quite far. So it would be lovely here to have it set up with some benches or public space.”
There are lots of office workers around, so she says a public park would be well used.
It would be great for business too, Sfarghie says, because people would take their food and coffee and sit outside, weather permitting.
Julie Wynne, who was part of the community group that looked after the garden, says she’s unsure of the current owner’s plans for the space.
“It’s being used as a car-parking space, which is awful to see,” Wynne says. “It would have been amazing for it to continue as a garden for the local residents and for everyone who passes by on foot and Luas.”
When it was still up and running, Mary’s Abbey garden wasn’t open to the public. It was for local residents only. But there were regular events that were open to the public, said the council spokesperson.
“Three years is considered a reasonable timeline, as this was a trial around use of unused space until it was due for development,” the spokesperson said.
The council’s aim in projects like this was to encourage landowners to lease out spaces awaiting redevelopment, says Siobhan Maher, the council’s public-realm strategy project manager. “Especially during the downturn, which is when this started.”
Maher helped to facilitate the now-defunct Mary’s Abbey garden, and the still-going-strong St Anne’s Road garden in Drumcondra, among other projects.
This way of utilising sites in the short-term, she says, gives the private owner “a level of comfort that they’ll get the space back”.
Another temporary garden initiative Maher talked about is the Smithfield Art Tunnel, a sliver of land next to a Luas line that, for a couple of years, was used as a community garden and open-air art gallery. It closed down in 2014.
Maher says the tunnel had lots of events and exhibitions, and was open to many keyholders. “It went back to its owner when it was supposed to,” she says.
Artist and landscape architect Sophie von Maltzan was involved with Mary’s Abbey garden, the Smithfield Art Tunnel, and a pocket park on St Anne’s Road.
The Art Tunnel was her project – she designed the garden and put a call-out to people passing by to help fund it, and it worked, she says. With the other two gardens, the community contacted her and asked for help with designs.
“They really designed it, and I pulled it together and turned it into something buildable,” von Maltzan says.
Why Do Some Pocket Parks Last Longer?
On St Anne’s Road in Drumcondra, on a sliver of land next to the railway station, there are benches and green shrubs even in winter. There’s a slide and wooden structures for children to explore.
The St Anne’s Road pocket park is an example of a small, outdoor community space that’s stuck around longer than some others.
It’s been running for a good while, says Maher. Originally, the land was a small green space maintained by the council. It’s now maintained by a community group.
“They’ve introduced playful pieces and a biodiversity habitat,” Maher says.
While there used to be issues with antisocial behaviour in the space, it’s been transformed into “a very cared for, positive space in the area”, she says.
According to Aine Tyers, who lives nearby, the idea came from friend and neighbour Jen Martin, who no longer lives in the area. Back in 2013, it was more like a public toilet than a public park, and was used as a thoroughfare by people walking to Croke Park.
Martin got a gang of neighbours together, Tyers says. They sought out funding from a number of sources, including the Croke Park Community Fund. By 2015, the pocket park was up and running.
When Martin moved away, residents were determined to keep the park going, Tyers says. Now Tyers helps with funding applications, and another neighbour looks after the park’s social-media presence.
“Our only intention is to let people know this is a community space … It’s everybody’s space,” Tyers says.
In setting up a community garden, it’s really important to get the community involved in designing it. “[T]hey know best what they want,” she says.
In the case of St Anne’s Road, something that helps with the park’s longevity is that it’s openly accessible to the public, and not cordoned off, says Maher.
“It’s not like an allotment with keyholder access only. Any member of the public can walk through it, benefit from it visually – can engage with it or not as they choose,” she says.
Maher says the community group itself is also an important factor in whether a pocket park stays going. The group needs to be committed to the cause and build relationships with one another to become sustainable.
A few residents living in the houses across the road from the park have become its custodians. There’s a daily litter pickup, and a group of residents meet daily on the park benches.
The park receives some funding from the council’s community-grants scheme, Tyers says, to replace plants and things that have broken.
Residents throw a birthday party for the park every year, one of many events aimed at bringing people in, Tyers says. Last year, the group held an event on Culture Night.
Maher stresses that community gardens mean different things to different people, and the end goal, whatever that is, “has to be achievable”.
Every space is unique and has its own potential. “Whatever it is tends to be specific to the space, as well as the individuals coming together to run it,” Maher says. “There’s no real blueprint.”
It’s About Trying Things
Von Maltzan, the artist and landscape architect, says that, even though the Mary’s Abbey garden didn’t last forever, she hopes it’s seen as a positive effort.
She’s learned from it and others have too, she says. “For the time it did work, it was a success. It did make people happy, and it made neighbours actually meet each other, which is one of the benefits.”
It’s about trying things, she says.
“I think we’re at a time when we’re reviving green space and public space in cities … getting communities more engaged.”
She says that when community gardens are built on private land it would be better if the people involved knew from the beginning how long they were allowed to stay.
Then maybe those people wouldn’t get sad or disillusioned. They’d also know what to put in the park – fast-growing plants instead of trees, for example.
Von Maltzan says that even if the land under a community garden is sold for development, the new owner might work with local residents to allow the garden to continue during the lengthy planning process.
“If it’s going to be built on, building always takes longer than people expect,” she says. It would benefit everyone, community and owner alike, more than leaving it empty.