Guerrilla gardeners breathe life into ghost estates

Sneaking onto derelict housing estates to plant trees and commit other crimes of beauty may sound a little odd, but mounting frustration with the eyesores left over from the building boom has finally reached a tipping point.

Ghost estates — empty shopping centres, abandoned hotels, unfinished housing projects, skeletal office buildings and half-completed golf courses — are a vivid reminder of the profligacy of a property rush which imploded more than four years ago, bringing down the rest of the economy.

Guerrilla gardening, a phenomenon born in the US which involves planting trees, flowers and other forms of beautification on public or private land without permission, is part of the next wave of community-led initiatives seeking to tidy up the blighted landscape.

Armed with spades, gloves and tree saplings, volunteers planted over 1,000 willow, alder, birch and ash trees in a bid to reclaim land at a site which has been a blot on the village vista of Keshcarrigan, Co Leitrim, for years.

The group named “Nama to Nature” — in reference to the state-run agency that was created to purge Irish banks of risky land development loans and is now the country’s largest property group — has plans for more raids and is calling on other community groups to take matters into their own hands.

“People are having to sit with it [ghost estates] on their back doors, it’s a really nasty symbol of what’s been left behind,” said Serena Brabazon, one of the organisers.

“It hasn’t been dealt with. That’s the real frustration for everybody,” she said, as the group makes plans to tackle a second ghost estate.

Nama, which has been accused by the opposition of being too soft on the country’s property developers and for not doing enough to help taxpayers, said recently it had invested €500m on completing unfinished projects.

But the agency, dubbed the “bad bank” is bound to secrecy on the projects for which it holds loans, prompting outrage at the lack of transparency.

“It’s about taking a civil action against the grey area of a state body that doesn’t allow for any transparency... There is no transparency in Nama, and nobody knows what is happening with it,” said Ms Brabazon.

“We are trying to empower people, they don’t have to sit behind these monstrosities, they can do something,” she added.

While the argument over Nama rages, many of the half-built properties have begun falling into disrepair.

Little wonder then that a few protest movements have sprouted up given the relentless rise in unemployment, a programme of tax rises and spending cuts and the fairly stiff terms we have had to undertake in order to receive an EU/IMF bailout.

At one shell of a building in Dublin’s docklands district, artists have nailed 28 paintings to the hoarding that surrounds the eight-storey concrete skeleton of what was to be Anglo Irish Bank’s headquarters. The building, which the Central Bank is interested in buying, is a potent symbol of the financial crisis.

“There is such deep frustration. What I’ve seen in response to the art thing and the trees, is that people are just dying for some way of expressing this frustration,” Suki Jobson, 36, a geopolitical researcher who recently returned to Dublin after living in Britain for 20 years said.

The artists, who used the St Patrick’s day parade as a decoy for their activities, said their nine-month project was born out of a feeling of having their hands tied behind their backs by Europe and an inability to question Government decisions.

“Nobody asked us permission to buy it with our money so why should we seek permission to decorate it?” said one of the organisers of the initiative, who wished to remain anonymous.

“We own Nama through our taxpayers’ money, and Nama owns that builder. So there is a point to be made that we own that building, we are decorating as we see fit,” he added.

Nama said its exposure to ghost estates is “far, far lower” than most people realise, with other banks more exposed to the country’s 2,800 unfinished projects while Nama hold the loans to a mere 10% of sites.

“Some people seem to use it [the word Nama] as a generic term for anything that is not currently occupied but that’s very misleading,” a spokesman for Nama said.

Unfortunately ghost estates will be a reminder of Ireland’s Celtic tiger past for many more years to come, according to a recent study from NUI Maynooth.

“It’s the white elephant in the room, no one’s really talking about but we’re all paying for it,” said Jobson.

“I came home specifically now because I wanted to get involved.”

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