Fingal County Council’s draft plans to upgrade Ward River Valley Park in Swords show a new performance space, according to a presentation to local councillors last week.
It would sit – if the plans go ahead as is – alongside a recreation hub with upgraded playing fields, and new features like an all-weather pitch, ball courts, changing facilities and a public realm.
Also, the council would restore the park’s old canal, repair its walled garden and create a destination play area, said Jim Bloxam, a landscape architect and senior associate for Dermot Foley Landscape Architects (DFLA).
Permeability, accessibility and connectivity are the three fundamental aims of the project, Bloxam told the Balbriggan/Rush-Lusk/Swords Area Committee on 14 September.
“Overarching all of that really is the biodiversity habitat issues, and retaining what’s there and enhancing where we can,” he said.
The next step in the project for the park is for DFLA to create designs for the new features, and then hold a public information day, Bloxam said.
It’ll then apply to An Bord Pleanála for planning permission, said Mark Nugent, a landscape architect for Fingal County Council.
It aims to make that application in 2024, said a spokesperson for the council.
Outlining the vision
In September 2022, Fingal County Council announced plans to enhance Ward River Valley Park.
The aim, it said at the time, was to expand the park, and improve its facilities, while protecting and enhancing its existing heritage, ecology and biodiversity.
Redeveloping the park fits with the council’s Sustainable Swords project, which aims to create accessible public spaces that connect.
At the area committee meeting last Thursday, Bloxam, the architect with DFLA, said the current masterplan for the park was drawn up after consulting with council officials and three public consultations.
In his breakdown of the major undertaking, Bloxam said there would be a new entrance at the park’s west end on Church Road, which links in with the Swords greenway.
“The park is acting really as a linking mechanism, going in between Swords from the north to south, and east to west, and there’s a hierarchy of paths and experiences to be experienced within that,” he said.
Running through the park then is a network of proposed historic, ecology and fitness trails, he said.
There will be new ways in for vehicles to the recreational hub, which will bring together the existing pitches to the south of the river valley, and a proposed set of facilities in the north.
On the northern end of the hub, the masterplan proposes new-look public spaces, all-weather pitches, new grass pitches, ball courts, and facilities like changing rooms, meeting rooms and multi-functional rooms, he said.
They also plan to add a cafe and changing rooms in the park’s south, where astroturf pitches and a car park opened back in March, he said.
They’ve drawn up some designs for a play area for children that uses the park’s slopes and vegetation, said Bloxam.
“There has been a lot of thought into that, and how we can incorporate the various aspects that are important in the park, water, fauna, ecology, and utilising those slopes,” he said.
Before the application, some smaller pieces of work are about to be carried out on historical structures in the park, he said.
These are a “brick arch”, located in the park’s west, on the bank of the Ward River, and the Cascades, an arched bridge over the river.
A walled garden within the park also needs to be repaired and could be used as a community facility, he said.
They also plan to restore an old canal, he said. “Which would then activate that area of the park, providing accessible links into the wider connections within the park.”
Watching over biodiversity
But while there is no shortage of talk about improving the area’s biodiversity in the plans, not everyone is convinced.
Local resident John Drinane – who has for years done regular clean ups in the park – says that the council needs to resolve the long-standing issues around illegal dumping in the park itself.
On Sunday afternoon, Drinane is in the south-east of the park, and stops in front of a large mound of leaves and grass.
The focus is all on the visible development of infrastructure, he says. “It’s as if biodiversity in Ireland is fine. It’s in deep shit, and you would never pick that up from the plans they have for the park.”
He drags a long red rake through the pile, causing steam to rise. “You can see this is composting already,” he says.
He walks around to the other side of the pile, and as he scrapes away at a top layer of soil, rubbish starts to fall out: beer cans, old pens and crisp packets.
The Ward River is right beside this, he says. “This is a floodplain. It’s four kilometres from the sea, and in the next climate deluge, this will all start getting washed out to sea.”
Green Party Councillor Ian Carey said later on the phone that the council has made an effort to address the issue of dumping over the last year.
“I’m hoping that we can turn the corner on some of the historic stuff before major development of the park staff gets into full swing,” he said.
Bloxam, at the area committee meeting last Thursday, said the overarching idea in the plan is to look after the area’s biodiversity.
There’s work being done on the Ward River, he said. “Potentially removing some of the rock armour in there and creating a fish bypass, so fish can basically come up from the east to the west, using all of the river.”
A larger piece of work is to look at water quality in the park, he said. “As the water enters the park, the EPA says it is of a moderate status. By the time it leaves the park it is of a poor status.”
There is an opportunity here to intervene around stormwater outfalls, which may be causing the pollution, and to treat the stormwater before it goes into the Ward River, he says.
“There’s real opportunity there to have a big impact on the habitats and biodiversity and health of the water within the Ward River,” he said.
But Drinane says there isn’t enough weight on protecting biodiversity when compared with what is being lined up in the recreational hub. “Throughout all of the consultations and the submission stage, there wasn’t the focus on the environment.”
“The suggestions as to what might be developed involve pouring concrete, laying tarmac, building structures, be it sports facilities, or cultural or entertainment features,” he says.
On the Monday after the meeting, Sinn Féin Councillor Ann Graves said she is delighted with the vast majority of the plan.
Her one concern is that Swords has been waiting for a community centre for more than a decade, she says.
“For me this was the prime opportunity for putting it in, developing the recreational hub with a community centre,” said Graves.
The council has known for years that a centre was needed, she says. “I can’t understand why it wasn’t included. But there’s still time.”
A space for children who aren’t interested in contact sports and for the elderly population is also vitally needed, she says. “The Sword’s Women’s Shed is also looking for a venue, so there are a lot of things it could be used for.”
Carey, the Green Party councillor, said the project is ambitious.
He welcomes the proposal for a new entrance down towards Swords village, he said. “It’s going to be an incredible resource.”
Labour Councillor James Humphreys said the council needs to look at who has access to the pitches at the moment, and how to manage them going forward.
“I just have concern that we’re giving too much space in parks where you have to pay to use them,” he said.
A council spokesperson says standard all-weather pitches supplied by Fingal County Council are available to be booked and require prior booking.
There must be playing fields that are free to use, Humphreys says. “Gone are the days when you could just go down to the park and kick a ball around. We seem to be moving towards a more structured system in the park, which is not the way to go.”
He would also welcome an off-leash area for dogs, he says. “We also need to make sure that there’s a biodiversity balance in the park. So, long grass, shrubbery, trees.”