Ballymun regeneration ‘a shining example to communities’

Ballymun – a district on Dublin’s northside – is infamous for its tower blocks, which became a symbol of poverty, drugs and other social problems from the 1970s.

Thirty-six blocks of flats were built in the 1960s and incorporated the best social housing practice of the time, including district central heating. However, there was a profound lack of amenities in the area and ghettoisation soon developed.

Today Ballymun is undergoing a multi-million euro renewal, with a renovated town centre surrounded by residential estates as well as schools, parks, sports facilities, renewed shopping areas and two hotels. Overseeing the renewal of the area is Ballymun Regeneration Limited (BRL), a limited company set up in 1997 and controlled by Dublin City Council, with the aim of initiating the demolition of the Ballymun flats and overseeing the emergence of a ‘new town’ of Ballymun. Only 10 tower blocks remain, with residents being gradually re-housed in new state-of-the-art housing.

Waste disposal in the flats used to consist of throwing refuse down a chute, which meant residents were not used to segregating and recycling any of their waste. "People who lived in the tower blocks are moving into an environment where they have their own garden, they’re responsible for their own waste and they control their energy use for the first time," says Sarah Miller, Environmental Projects and Rediscovery Centre manager.

Miller and her colleagues devised a number of ways and means to educate the local community. They established bring centres in the basement of some of the tower blocks and made themselves available to residents who had questions about recycling. In this way the tenants got into the habit of segregating and recycling before moving into their newly-built homes, where they are encouraged to continue the practice.

An after-school Bounty Hunter Club has been popular with children, with points being awarded for each item they collect for recycling. "The kids came to the classes and learned about recycling and about the greater environment and global aspects of environmental pollution and then they’d go home with the tips they’d picked up," says Miller.

A lot of work has also been achieved around composting. "We set up some central composting systems and we also went around knocking on the doors of new homes, offering people compost bins. Lots of people in Ballymun are now composting," says Miller.

BRL had the foresight to balance physical regeneration with a strong focus on social, economic and environmental development. A Rediscovery Centre, which will present an integrated solution encompassing all elements of the waste management strategy, is now at the planning stage. It is hoped that construction will take place next year and that the centre will open in 2012.

Much of the work that will take place in the centre is already taking place at different locations. "We have discovered that people don’t just want to know about recycling," says Miller. "The more they found out about waste, the more interested they became about waste management. They could see the benefit of using waste as a resource."

D5612-0025A number of innovative projects have resulted from this realisation. In 2006 a Furniture Recycling Project was established, which now employs seven people. Donations of old furniture are redesigned and restored before being sold online or at environmental events, like the monthly Ballymun Farmers Market. To date, 19,000kg of bulky furniture waste has been diverted from landfill.

In 2008 the project was awarded first prize as Dublin City Neighbourhood’s Business Initiative and was winner of both the Dublin Region and the National Award for Best Recycling Initiative in the Tidy Towns competition.

"The participants in the project get valuable skills in terms of woodwork, carpentry, joinery, upholstering, French polishing and wood-turning," says Miller, "And, in turn, the furniture, which would otherwise have ended up in landfill, actually gets a new lease of life. The money raised from selling the furniture is then ploughed back into the project.

"Some of the material we get isn’t necessarily suitable – it might be too dated – but the wood is still valuable and we can do something with it. A Bulgarian musician, Emilian Lalev, heard of the project and came and spent a few months here last year. He helped make three fabulous guitars out of old wardrobes and legs of chairs."

Rediscover Fashion was launched in 2008 with a fashion show featuring 100% recycled outfits from three designers. One of them, Carrie-Ann Moran, who hails from nearby Finglas, now heads up the Rediscover Fashion project, which provides sewing courses at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.

Despite being a relatively easy waste stream to reuse and recycle, an estimated 93% of all textile waste in Ireland is sent to landfill. That’s 224,924 tonnes of textile waste each year. Rediscover Fashion has already diverted 500kg of textiles from landfill this year.

A Rediscovery Centre Ecoshop is due to open shortly on Ballymun Main Street and will stock Moran’s creations as well as restored furniture and other eco products.

A Rediscover Business programme works with local businesses to improve their environmental performance in line with overall business development. The programme involves a user-friendly environmental management system (EMS) template, which helps local businesses reduce their environmental impact and save money.

The Rediscovery Centre Education Programme’s interactive learning workshops focus on the environmental impact of waste management. A pilot project has been run for the past three years. About 500 pupils have participated in the workshops to date and there is a waiting list of more than 60 classes, primarily from outside the area.

"One of the objectives of the project was to make Ballymun a destination place – that people would come here to learn about waste, about resource recovery and about recycling," says Miller. Before the Rediscovery Centre has even been built, the vision is already becoming a reality, with the centre being accredited as a Discover Science Centre under the National Discover Primary Science initiative.

Ballymun is the first area in Ireland to publish a sub-regional bio-diversity action plan and it has won numerous accolades, including Ireland’s Green Community of the Year and Fairtrade Town of Ireland in 2008. No wonder then that, during the Greener Ballymun conference two years ago, Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, described Ballymun as "a shining example to other communities across Ireland."

Perhaps, more important than the awards and the accolades, is the renewed sense of pride that is evident, the increase in levels of community participation as well as local residents’ enthusiastic engagement with the aspiration to develop Ballymun as an example of environmental sustainability.

There is no doubt that the regeneration of Ballymun truly represents a beacon of light on the northside of Dublin – one that towns and communities throughout the country should strive to emulate. Word has already spread and now communities in other parts of the country are getting in touch to say that they would like to achieve something similar in their own locality.

Imagine if every community in Ireland had a similar scheme up and running!

For further info see www.rediscoverycentre.ie.