Notes on An Taisce support for community groups through boom and bust

By Robert Moss; Green Flag Award for Parks Manager (Republic of Ireland).

On a rainy day in August 2018 five Community Gardens received the first Irish Green Flag Community Awards, presented by Mr Michael Ring T.D. - Minister for Rural and Community Development. This was at the National Museum of Country Life within Turlough Park, County Mayo, and it marked the culmination of a hectic year of consultation, meetings, site visits, and training, conducted across the country. The reasoning behind all this effort was a common belief that successful community projects need more recognition, and more support. On the back of An Taisce’s success in delivering the Green Flag Award for our formal parks and gardens, it was decided that its proven benefits could be extended to volunteer run green spaces as well.

An Taisce’s desire to support and recognise these community environmental projects was also shared by the new Government Department of Rural and Community Development, based in Ballina County Mayo, and also by Mayo County Council which manages the Green Flag Award Turlough Park site, where the awards ceremony was hosted.

With the support of these two organisations it made sense to launch this pilot programme across counties Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon in 2018. Since then the community award has been extended to applicable community groups nationwide, to include volunteer initiatives such as; community gardens, community parks, community orchards, organic nurseries, and Tidy Towns environmental projects.

This year has seen a large increase in the number of community green space projects applying to enrol in this free accreditation programme. Rising from 8 applicant sites last year to 14 sites this year.

The reason for extending the international Green Flag Award for Parks Scheme into community run parks, gardens, and other green spaces, is to leverage Green Flag Award values and standards for the benefit of our communities and their voluntary endeavour. Indeed, the new community award provides our community green spaces with access to an existing wider network of Green Flag Award Judges, and best practice management within the more formal provision of public green space. In doing so we create a very constructive conduit for information, knowledge, and skill share between the professional and voluntary green space sectors.

The new Green Flag Community Award puts a very heavy emphasis upon community engagement including appropriate levels of access and involvement for all sectors of the community. Broadly it supports and protects our community green spaces by:

  • Raising their credibility in the eyes of decision makers
  • Promoting the contribution made to their communities
  • Delivering best practice support and advice
  • Engaging participating groups in a roadmap of improvement and consolidation

Among the diverse brief of the Department of Rural and Community Development is the responsibility for promoting the social and economic development of rural Ireland and the regions. Because Green Flag Community Award criteria seek to deliver sustainability, inclusivity, and social & community development … via the medium of green spaces, there is an obvious alignment between these criteria and the department’s own brief.

Discussions between the Green Flag Award Scheme Programme Manager and the Community Development Section of this government department decided that the community award pilot should deliver clearly and strongly within the following areas:

  • Delivers facilities to the community not otherwise available
  • Must be freely accessible
  • Promotes environmental best practice and sustainability
  • Creates a potential tourist attraction

All of the community run green spaces participating in the Green Flag Community Award deliver strongly on the first three of the above four priorities. One of the interesting results of the pilot was uncovering the huge potential in the fourth priority of “creating future potential tourist attractions” at some of these community run green spaces. This is certainly the case with Knockvicar Organic Garden in County Roscommon. This publicly accessible organic nursery stands out as being a potential eco-tourist attraction along the lines of Irish Seed Savers (Scarrif, County Clare), or the Organic Centre (Rossinver, County Leitrim). This is due to its strong organic growing ethos, environmental concern, and its strong community enterprise focus. Feedback was requested from all participant sites, and the response from Knockvicar Organic Garden is particularly illuminating:

How does the Green Flag Community Award help you?

  • The Green Flag Community Award points people in our direction.
  • It gives us a boost to get more organised.
  • Visitors do recognise the green flag and comment on it. They understand what the flag is recognising.

The success with which An Taisce was able to establish what is essentially a new community environmental programme here in Ireland from a standing start should not be understated. The ability to do this had as much to do with the proceeding success of its Green Communities Programme in establishing and supporting a network of community environmental projects, as it did with the introduction and consequent growth of the international Green Flag Award for Parks Scheme.

Unlike the Green Communities Programme, which proceeded it, the Green Flag Community Award is a more structured programme of engagement, as well as still delivering a similar level of support that the Green Communities Programme provided. The new scheme is also better able to deliver demonstrable results across multiple criteria, including climate mitigation actions. Many of the Green Flag Community Award criteria also deliver on UN Sustainable Development Goals, and therefore underpin government policy. Most importantly the scheme also provides a strong community engagement framework that will be vital for Ireland in reaching its climate action goals. These goals will only remain aspirational unless programmes like the Green Flag Community Award gain strong traction within society in a similar way that the Tidy Towns Competition has done.

A recommendation for enabling community groups to engage with sustainable development issues was delivered by the evaluation of other An Taisce Education Programmes. This led to the Green Communities project, commencing as a partnership between An Taisce and Keep Wales Tidy in 2008, with EU funding from INTERREG IV and the then Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in Ireland.

This Green Communities Project provided horticultural and ecological training of a practical hands on nature. The training for participating community groups was particularly helpful to community growing projects. Examples of Green Communities training events included composting workshops, plant propagation, and fruit tree pruning. Many individual participants were actively interested in ecology, environmentalism, and community development anyway, and so the Green Communities field trips and training provided the glue to establish a network of likeminded community environmental groups. These community groups also benefitted from this developing network by being able to compare and contrast with the other groups across the network. This has also allowed them to find solutions, form alliances, and learn things from one another, in addition to the formal training provided by the Green Communities Project.

After this EU funded project concluded in 2011, An Taisce maintained Green Communities as an education programme until 2018, when the programme ended. This new Green Communities Programme continued to support a growing number of community groups with sustainable lifestyle and Biodiversity enhancement actions. Through a combination of training, activity based workshops, site visits, and mentoring, the programme enabled community groups to improve their local environment, regardless of social background or resources. Unlike the Green Flag Community Award there was little formal assessment of these community groups. Any genuine community initiative working on local environmental improvements, awareness raising, or biodiversity enhancement was welcome to engage, participate in events, and learn from other groups.

The all-encompassing nature of the Green Communities Programme in some ways proved to be its Achilles’ heel insofar as it was hard to define what it was to government agencies that were approached to continue the programme’s funding. It also proved impossible to gain traction with commercial sponsors for a programme that was intrinsically focussed on an ethos of persuading people to consume less, recycle, and not purchase anything unnecessarily. However the Programme was particularly successful at hosting its events at individual Green Communities network project sites. These network supported events proved to be a cost effective way of promoting good practice, while at the same time raising the profile of the host community projects.

This technique and the success it delivered in terms of community development across the Greater Dublin Area, attracted the attention of other organisations elsewhere in Ireland. In 2012 West Limerick Resources issued a request for tender to deliver training and mentorship for West Limerick Tidy Towns Groups. An Taisce Green Communities successfully tendered for this project and proceeded to develop the skills, knowledge and potential of 19 Tidy Towns groups. This was in the areas of biodiversity, habitat mapping, invasive species mapping, and waste minimisation. The Green Communities Programme also ensured that Tidy Towns groups were given the necessary training and skills to develop viable community initiatives, and to increase scoring within relevant Tidy Towns Competition Criteria.

At its peak, An Taisce’s Green Communities Programme was supporting and working with 49 registered member groups in 2017. These community environmental projects were mostly located across the Greater Dublin Area, and took the form of community gardens and allotment associations, but they also included residents’ associations and Tidy Towns Groups. The Green Communities Programme was in operation during a key period of community development in Ireland, which was provoked when the last recession hit in 2009. This saw a strategic opportunity to partner unused urban land with unemployed volunteers at the height of that recession. The first contemporary community gardens, as opposed to allotments, only appeared in Dublin around 2005. As such they were a relatively unknown experience for the local authorities on whose land many community groups wished to set up new community gardens.

One of the results of Green Communities Programme support for this new wave of community green space projects, because of the programme’s collaboration with other organisations such as the Dublin Local authorities, and the Dublin City Community Forum, was an acceptance of community garden projects as being part of the tool kit of Dublin Local Authority community development.

This direction and synergy assisted a huge upsurge of community garden projects on public land, and also delivered a platform for Green Communities Groups at the annual Dublin City Community Forum Environmental Seminars. These annual seminars were hosted at the Wood Quay Venue and allowed volunteers from Green Communities environmental projects an equal platform, along with government agencies such as Inland Waterways Ireland, NGO’s such as An Taisce, and media personalities such as Eanna Ni Lamhna. Another success from this period of collaboration was the Dublin Guide to Community Gardens [1]. I first wrote this publication in February 2010, and then updated it in 2014 due to the growing number of community gardens across Dublin. This lists 45 community gardens then in operation across Dublin, an amazing increase since 2005. This publication was a collaborative project jointly funded by Dublin City Community Forum and Dublin City Council’s Parks and Landscape Services Department. Many of the gardens listed were already Green Communities Groups, and without this network of Green Communities green space projects it would never have been possible to gather the information, contact details, and locations of all these volunteer community projects together in one resource.

Over the years of its operation the Green Communities Programme assisted many individuals and organisations with research, groundwork, and even arts projects. Part of this legacy is a European art project hosted by Project Arts Centre "Peace With Earth". This will be a multi-year enquiry initiated by artist Asa Sonjasdotter. The project aims to explore the history, art, and culture of agriculture in Ireland, with a focus on its communal art/heritage. The knowledge of this aspect of our history and culture is very scattered ... and currently being lost. Green Communities was able to assist in partnering Green Communities participant groups with this heritage project.

It is likely that since 2014 the number of community gardens has declined as the economy has grown. This has led to a period of rapid commercial development in Dublin, putting pressure on available sites for community gardens, while at the same time there has been a noticeable reduction in the amount of available volunteers for maintaining community gardening projects. From 2017 there was a rapid closure of a number of community gardens in Dublin, with Weaver Square, Bridgefoot Street, Sitric Road, and South Circular Road Community Gardens all closed down either in 2017 or 2018.

Green Communities activities ended in September 2018, with a Community Garden Photography Competition. This provided an exhibition for some of the best images of community green space projects from across the country. It was also highly effective in promoting the new Green Flag Community Award to participating Green Communities groups. The exhibition itself was also included as part of the 2018 Culture Night on Friday the 21st of September, and was on the Culture Night Trail for Dublin City / Monto and North Georgian Quarter. The video of the photography awards can be viewed here.

The Green Flag Community Award now offers a framework of support, best practice, and recognition that could prove useful in securing the survival of Ireland’s community garden amenities in uncertain times. At this stage it is worth considering how much these volunteer green spaces deliver to society beyond community development. For example, if there is not widely available access to imaginative green space projects then people will not develop a vocabulary to draw on for ideas for their own neighbourhood improvement. Such a situation would mean that people would also be less able to contribute meaningful engagement with local and national green space strategies.

References: [1] R.Moss. Dublin Guide to Community Gardens. 2014. Available here.