12 June, 2013

Time to rethink the Croppies Acre Park

It’s a tale of two cities.

Actually, the Croppies’ Acre Park and St. Stephen’s Green might as well exist in parallel universes.

During the recent hot spell Stephen’s Green was packed out with people enjoying the sun in a well-maintained and manicured park. Across the River Liffey, beside Collins Barracks the Croppies’ Acre Park was empty, bar a few adventurous city dwellers that had ignored the padlocked gates and hopped over the wall to sit on the grass and enjoy the sunshine. Oddly enough, both parks are managed by the Office of Public Works (OPW). Stephen’s Green is doing fine, but the Croppies’ Acre could do with, well, a little love. 

How did this happen? The OPW blames anti-social behaviour for their decision to close the park. I suspect the problem runs deeper than this. The Croppies’ Acre Park was poorly designed and has been badly managed. It has often run into controversy. Back in 1997 the National Museum wanted to provide a car park for visitors to Collins Barracks, and targeted the park for coach parking. Thankfully the National Graves Association (NGA) and others lobbied hard to stop this from happening. The future of the park seemed safe, but was it? The sculpture that commemorates the Croppy Boys dominates a large section of the Park, and has sterilised much of it. It consists of a stone spiral and flat slabs arranged in a geometric pattern on the grass nearby. The rest of the park has some trees and planting, but has always had been underused and poorly accessible. Even when the park was open to the public, there were only two entrances, close to the Eastern boundary. Along the Luas line a wall restricts access and visibility of the park itself. Tourists walking towards the city centre from Heuston railway station are mystified as to why there’s no entrance to the Park close to one of Ireland’s busiest train stations. The ground may well be ‘sacred’ as Matt Doyle of the NGA described it, but it should be reopened and provide more activities for Dubliners and visitors alike.

Over the years there have been proposals to increase activity in the Park, such as the imaginative proposal by architects Douglas Carson and Rosaleen Crushell  to provide some  5-a-side football pitches, but this was vetoed by the OPW's with their spokesperson Neil Ryan stating that it would be inappropriate, given the site's history as a mass grave. This was a bad call. Parks need activity, and football and monuments can happily co-exist in a park this size. Lots of families and dog-walkers use the small park nearby on Arbour Hill where the 1916 leaders are buried, so why shouldn't the Croppies Acre Park be more accessible and used by the general public? It's almost two hectares or five hectares in size, and thousands of people live nearby. It's also quite a walk, more than eight hundred metres or half a mile  from the Croppies' Acre gate to the nearest patch of grass in the Phoenix Park. For much of the twentieth century the Park was used for football. I'd imagine Wolf Tone's brother Matthew whose remains are said to buried in the Croppies' Acre would have welcomed a bit more activity.

Much of the OPW’s presence in the park over the last few years consisted of a security guard based in a graffiti-covered container who took it on himself to roar at kids who (naturally enough) walked along the parapet of the park wall. Meanwhile (and despite the OPW presence) a certain amount of rough sleeping, drug-taking and street drinking established itself in the Park. At the time of writing in June 2013 we have the worst of both worlds: a park that has been locked by the OPW, plus the anti-social behaviour.

Urban parks are a crucial part of what makes cities tick. They’re central to making urban settlements livable, and fun. They attract families and provide an outdoor space for those who live in small apartments. If we can’t get parks working well, we’re in deep trouble in our cities and towns.

Maybe we can look to the Netherlands to find a solution. Back in March I visited the Noorder Park in North Amsterdam. This park had  previously suffered from anti-social behaviour. Street drinkers had taken over a section of the park and nearby residents and tourists were afraid to visit. Rather than closing down the park the city adopted an innovative approach. They built a small pavilion that acts as an attractive neighbourhood centre. When I visited on a chilly Sunday in March the street drinkers were gathered, cans in hand around an outside fire and inside young mothers sipped herbal tea while their children played nearby. In one corner there was a singer with his guitar with an audience of mixed backgrounds and ages. Nearby an artist was sketching a visitor’s portrait. I was told that the cafe operator was concerned about security for her €5,000 coffee machine, but that the guys outside take it in turn to mind the pavilion overnight. Certainly on my visit there was peaceful co-existence between everybody there.

The crucial factor in all of this though, is that it doesn’t run itself. The City of Amsterdam employs a bright sharp manager who makes sure that the pavilion is well-run and maintained. She makes sure that there are enough old wood pallets to fuel the fire; schedules the singer-songwriter to be there on Sunday afternoon, and liaises with social services if one of the down-and-outs needs care. I wouldn’t be surprised though, if she was paid less than the bored security guard who used to be holed up in the drab security hut in the Croppies’ Acre. Not only does she manage the building, but she is a critical link between social services, the Parks Department, housing agencies and the police. This level of joined-up thinking is exactly what we need in Dublin.  A short video made to mark the fifth anniversary of the park pavilion shows the vitality of the area.

Here in Dublin we need  the same sort of imagination to re-open and improve the Croppies Acre Park. Some thinking outside the box  is required from the Office of Public Works, An Garda Siochána, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, Dublin City Council and the Department of Social Protection. All these agencies need to move outside their comfort zone. New entrances could be provided, and sections of the wall might be replaced with railings, or lowered in height. A Park Manager should be appointed, and maybe a cafe building provided similar to the one in Amsterdam. This  could lead to a more attractive park, and a brighter future for the down-and-outs, visitors and residents who might use its facilities. It could be a flagship project for social inclusion and regeneration.

The OPW need some fresh thinking when it comes to managing some of their urban parks in Dublin, or perhaps the City Council should take over. I suspect they could both learn from the example of North Amsterdam. I’d be happy to make the introduction.