Growing food on ghost estates

Published in Organic Matters magazine, December 2010 Urban agriculture is thriving in rundown Detroit as communities take over derelict sites to grow food. But with our thousands of ghost estates and other leftovers from the property boom, could Ireland plough a similar path? Lenny Antonelli reports.

When Detroit native Mark Covington lost his job as an environmental engineer and moved back to his old neighbourhood, he decided to get to work improving the rundown area. He cleaned up an empty lot and planted fruit and vegetables, allowing locals to harvest the food for free.

Covington wanted to buy a nearby derelict building and turn it into a community centre too, but he couldn’t get a grant or loan. Then journalist Paul Harris profiled Covington’s project in the Guardian, and an anonymous donor appeared with the cash. Covington’s Georgia Street neighbourhood has been transformed: disadvantaged locals can now harvest free food, kids watch movies at an outdoor cinema and the community holds regular street parties.

Detroit’s decline is infamous. Once an industrial giant, in the 1960s the city was the fourth largest in the US and home to two million people. Its population is now just 900,000, and one third of the city — an area of land the size of San Francisco — is derelict.

But grassroots community projects are revitalising the city, and urban farming projects like Covington’s are thriving. Last year alone over 900 food plots were created, and plans are afoot to establish the world’s largest urban farm in the city.

Here in Ireland, the Department of Environment revealed last month that we have 2,800 ghost estates. Over 75,000 occupied homes now sit within unfinished estates, and a further 58,000 sites have planning permission for houses that remain unbuilt. Meanwhile, Nama (the National Asset Management Agency) is taking over property loans worth tens of billions of euro.

Nobody seems to have started growing food on ghost estates or Nama property yet. But plenty of groups have proposed it, including the South Dublin Allotments Association, which suggested the idea in a submission to Nama.

“We did a submission on the idea of using the land on an interim basis as allotments on smaller sites, and where there are larger sites we figured they could be used for… commercial growers, for people who are market gardeners,” says the SDAA’s Michael Fox.

The group submitted a comprehensive list of reasons why growing food on Nama property makes sense, from preventing dereliction to encouraging food independence, developing growing skills at a time of unemployment and creating small businesses that could sell produce at farmers’ markets. The idea makes sense for Fox — “all it takes is a little bit of collaboration and cohesive planning,” he says — but Nama didn’t bite.

But the SDAA aren’t the only ones pushing the idea.  An Taisce suggested it in their submission to Nama, while Dublin City Council’s latest draft development plan states that derelict sites in the city should be used for “community gardens, allotments, local markets and pocket parks.”

In 2005 Kaethe Burt-O’Dea set up a community garden on a derelict plot in Stoneybatter, in Dublin’s north city.  The garden has thrived, and so has the community around it — locals now hold street parties twice a year, and Burt-O’Dea is spearheading a campaign to turn a stretch of abandoned railway line nearby — long taken over by wildlife — into a public green space. Students from Dublin Institute of Technology have undertaken research for the rail line project as part of the Community Links programme at the college.

Burt-O’Dea and volunteers cleaned-up the line and surveyed its biodiversity earlier this year. She brims with enthusiasm about the possibilities for a space she calls a “secret garden” — not only its potential for growing food and sheltering wildlife, but also as a walking and cycling route that encourages healthy, green transport. “The way we build our environment has so much to do with the health of the population,” she says, adding:  “I really see it as an education space, in the same way that in a community garden you learn without being told.” The site is eventually earmarked for a Luas line, but Burt-O’Dea says her vision of a green urban corridor can co-exist with the tram.

She might not be growing food on ghost estates, but Burt-O’Dea is certainly breathing new life into derelict spaces.  Those thinking of making ghost estates productive might find another template in Dublin’s art scene. As the economy collapsed and businesses closed over the past three years, many buildings in Dublin became vacant — or just never found occupants in the first place  — and rents dropped, allowing artists to start studios and galleries cheaply. Spaces that would otherwise be dormant became hubs for artists to work, exhibit and run events.

Now the current programme for government promises to provide free space for community groups and visual artists to display their work too, hinting that Nama properties could be used for this.  The Department of Education is examining whether some Nama sites are suitable for school building, and the HSE and other government departments are believed to be interested too.

Professor Rob Kitchin of the geography department at at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth has suggested some Nama properties could be used for schools, forestry or parks, while in September a letter in the Irish Times argued the state should hold on to Nama properties in the medium term and lease them out for socially useful activities. Others have floated the idea of using vacant housing in good condition for low cost rent-to-buy schemes, to provide shelter for the homeless, or even for squatting.

Ghost estates and Nama properties could be used for a raft of exciting ideas — growing food is just one of many. A Nama committee is examining what to do with the properties, and while bigger ideas like turning failed hotels into hospitals or prisons are unlikely to materialise, there are much simpler ways to use the property for public good.

Projects like Burt-O’Dea’s offer an inspiring example. She stresses that it’s often small grassroots projects like that really transform a town. “If you energise an area, then it becomes attractive,” she says. One small community garden can be a catalyst for dozens of other projects that revitalise derelict spaces — and now it’s surely only a matter of time before the idea spreads to land leftover from the property boom. “Getting people to think differently about a city gradually,” Burt-O’Dea says. “That’s how real change happens.”