We've increasingly appreciated our public parks and green spaces. But, since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, open and accessible green spaces have been our life and sanity savers.
Aiding both physical and psychological health, urban public parks trace their history back to urbanisation in the 19th century.
Now, between National Planning Framework (NPF) plans to grow the population of Irish cities by 500,000 by 2040 and thus significantly increasing density, and the 2020-arrived coronavirus, continuing the rollout and care of publicly accessible green spaces is seen as a 21st-century imperative.
We can expect ‘proximity to public parks’ to feature more highly in any lists of local neighbourhood amenities when home hunting, and when properties get advertised for sale.
We’re unlikely to want an apartment without a balcony, or a house without a patch of green. Co-living will be a hard concept to flog. We’ve discovered the urge to garden, to grow, and to ‘go green’, as garden centres currently replace the passive solace of shopping malls.
We’re going to want all we have, and far more public spaces on top of them, to meet and interact at socially allowable distances.
We’ll also relish the chance to create many more public open spaces, blueways and greenways created from green-belt land-grabs, river banks and landfill sites, from brownfield land holdings, right up to reclaimed and re-wilded bogs and prairie-like parks.
Dublin’s Phoenix Park is the largest enclosed park in any European capital, but its 18th-century land largesse is unlikely ever to be matched again, here or abroad.
We already want more, though: social media is abuzz and full of bright ideas to free up communally-accessible and acceptable spaces, highlighting the prospect of many more ‘pocket’ parks, even benches and a bit of greenery to sit by, at schools, factories, even church and cultural centre car parks.
Along with the good weather over the past two months, access to open space within now-5km distances outside one’s lockdown four walls has kept the country’s urban citizenry from revolt.
By now, who hasn’t found a spot to appreciate that they didn’t previously use or visit? Especially the over-70s, whose outdoor liberation from cocooning has latterly seen them crop up like so many welcome silver-tipped butterflies and wildflowers.
Not all of Europe has been so fortunate, points out Robert Moss of An Taisce, who instances Spain’s public parks, which were shuttered for the lockdown duration and which were only allowed to reopen on May 2.
Mr Moss heads up the European Green Flag Award for Parks scheme in Ireland, introduced here in 2015 as a pilot project, and now firmly taken root.
In fact, it’s spreading like a welcome pollinator weed.
Within its first five years, it has now accredited 60 public green spaces, including university campuses, community gardens and historic graveyards, with the number of organisations involved rising from 22 in 2019 to 28 in 2020.
It mightn’t sound like a lot, yet, but compared to the 15 countries and 2,100 sites so far on board, Ireland’s doing very well, says An Taisce’s Mr Moss, noting we’ve 2,048 hectares, or 3,125 diverse acres accredited thus far.
We’re all connecting far more with nature, now that we have a bit more time and confinement on our hands, and “the importance of safely managed and well-run public green space has been highlighted by their increased usage during the Covid-19 lockdown for recreation and exercise … offering relief from confinement and routine,” says Mr Moss.
Criteria for the Green Flag includes community engagement, amenities, good maintenance, safety, and — of key interest to An Taisce — fostering and sustainable management of biodiversity. Parks serve as a bridge from countryside to urban life, trees filter airborne pollution particles, and parks are an acknowledged refuge for wildlife.
Now they’re a refuge for humans, too.
Figures are well up in terms of usage: Liam Casey, who heads Cork City Council’s Parks division, tells the Irish Examiner that visits to the Lee Fields were up 45% in April 2020 over April 2019; they were up 37% at the Harty’s Quay walk; up 72% at the expansive 134-acre Ballincollig Regional Park (GAA entrance), and up 26% by the Allotments entrance. They were down 33% at the Inniscarra Road entrance, outside the 2kms distance for many (plus the mobile cafe there is closed), but Regional Park usage is up overall, to over 83,000 users in the month.
Most dramatic was a 121% increase at the stream-side Ballybrack walk in Douglas/Donnybrook, with 31,600 users last month, and the so-called Lyon’s Land walk (between the Lee Fields and Western Road) was up 64%, with 24,200 visits.
Figures aren’t yet available for other spots, such as the Glen Park and Tramore Valley Park. The latter has been open for just a year, on a former landfill site 3kms from the city centre and is absolutely hitting its stride.
Considerable investment has also gone into the likes of the Mardyke Garden Project/Fitzgeralds Park with its events spaces and playground, with April 2020 usage figures comparable with pre-Covid-19 times due to be confirmed shortly.
“These valuable amenities are critical for people of all ages in the present lock-down situation to have an opportunity for exercise and time out from their homes. Many businesses and jobs have closed and may not open for some time.
The local park and walkway is the only escape and retreat for people in what can only be an extremely stressful time for them,” said Mr Casey. “Likewise, schoolchildren and college students are in lockdown and, again, the local park and walkways are their escape from what is a very changed environment and stressful time for them.”
Following on the heels of the Tramore Valley Park will be the new park in Cork’s South Docklands at the Marina/Showgrounds site.
On-site work started March 2020, scheduled to be completed in 2021, says the City Council’s Mr Casey, who adds “more parks are in the pipeline for various locations in the city and will be rolled out as resources become available.”
Right now, just two Cork parks meet EU Green Flag accreditation, east of the city at Fota Gardens and far west, at Garinish Island in Glengarriff, and both are operated by the OPW.
It’s expected that the eco-diverse Ballincollig Regional Park will hit the Green Flag grade. An application was advanced but the switch from County Council to City Council operation may have put it back for a year or so now.
Also on the new parksfront in Cork will be the Haulbowline Island Project, with a new park on what was once one of the country’s most contaminated sites — the Irish Steel site — cleaned up after a multi-million euro investment. Asked for a timeline for opening, Cork County Council stated: “Plans are currently being progressed to open the park once a lease has been finalised by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. This will enable Cork County Council to operate the area as a public recreation amenity.”
Elsewhere in Munster, an example of a successfully ‘remediated’ former dump/landfill site is Waterford’s Kilbarry Nature Park, comprising 50 acres, 2.5ks from the city’s Viking core, by Ballynakill marsh and St John’s River.
Dumping finished there in the mid-2000s; it opened as an amenity and educational park with a café in 2012, and is a 2020 applicant for Green Flag park accreditation.
It included the planting of 20,000 trees, with shallow-rooted Scots Pines doing especially well on the dryish land associated with landfill soil cap cover.
Waterford City and County horticulturist Eoin Dullea told the Irish Examiner that a new mowing regime was visibly assisting wildlife, while Waterford-based Dr Úna Fitzpatrick, senior ecologist at the National Biodiversity Data Centre acknowledges “an amazing of job of managing it for pollinators. The different mowing regimes up on top that are naturally providing food and shelter are super. The new little paths are brilliant.
“As well as being good for all biodiversity, there were kids having a great time running around them.”
VERDICT: all a-buzz.