Thursday, 28 July 2016

Design in Dublin #4: The Lifeline

Benchmark on Sitric Road, image by Kaethe Burt-O'Dea

Here we are! The fourth and final part of my Design in Dublin series, published in full in Iterations issue 3. Enjoy the last of the series, which looks at Kaethe Burt-O'Dea's work on the Lifeline and other projects as examples of citizen design, and read back on parts #1, #2 and #3 if you haven't already.

The Broadstone to Broombridge railway line, image by Kaethe Burt-O'Dea

Citizens' design: The Lifeline
'Is it likely? This isn't the High Line, but the High Line took fifteen years. The High Line got done and it started with a person like me. That's how things happen in cities everywhere. Real change takes time.' - Kaethe Burt-O'Dea on Project Dublin, 2015

Healthcare designer, community gardener and activist Kaethe Burt-O'Dea has been working slowly and thoughtfully on a number of projects in Dublin aiming to connect people, place and nature, the most ambitious of which is the Lifeline, a linear park and multimodal transport link. Initially considered for a disused railway line in Dublin 7 connecting Broadstone and Broombridge (pictured above, hence the comparison to the High Line, New York City's famed linear park created on a disused railway line), Burt-O'Dea is now proposing the Lifeline finds its home in the former terminus of Dublin's Royal Canal, filled in in the 1920s when the canal was rerouted. Already a linear park of sorts, Burt-O'Dea sees it as the ideal route for cyclists and pedestrians to get between Dublin Institute of Technology's (DIT) new purpose-built campus in Grangegorman and its proposed sports centre in Broombridge, as well as alleviating ongoing traffic problems in nearby Phibsborough. In addition to providing a route through the northwest of Dublin's inner city, the Lifeline could be a hub for biodiversity and a 'living laboratory' for citizens and students alike.

Pushing for the Lifeline to become a reality over the past number of years has meant Burt-O'Dea has had to work closely with a number of key agencies: DIT and the Grangegorman Development Agency who have led the creation of DIT's new campus, the Luas, and, of course, Dublin City Council. At various stages in the process these agencies have loved or loathed the Lifeline proposal, either seeing it as a threat to plans for heavier infrastructure or recognising the incredible opportunity for the city that it is. And while Burt-O'Dea acknowledges how important it is to work with these agencies and convince them of the worth of the Lifeline, she puts much more of an emphasis on community involvement and backing:

'Everyone lives in the community, or everyone lives in a community, so the community is the area where the most potential lies. If you can get the community to rally, as they did in New York with the Highline, then things will happen. You can talk to the agencies, but if it doesn't fit into the “plan” you'll just be discarded.' - Kaethe Burt-O'Dea, 2015

So in order to involve the community, empowering them through participation, and also creating some sort of sustained income for the project, Burt-O'Dea is treating the Lifeline as not just a potential public amenity, but as a social enterprise. She is developing a range of products under the named – honey from the project's new apiary (emergency bee housing pictured below), soaps created using herbs from her community garden and more in the pipeline – to create employment and gain income.

Bí democracy workshops to create emergency bee housing from election posters

Closer to home, Burt-O'Dea's slow-growing projects have helped to really change her immediate neighbourhood. Starting with a community composting garden on a small patch of green space at the end of her road, Sitric Road, and moving on to a bench suspended between two upright gardens (pictured top), she has worked with her neighbours to transform an area once full of burnt-out cars and anti-social behaviour. Her latest endeavour on Sitric Road is to create a 'no-spray zone', countering recent Council-led use of herbicides on her street. She encountered Council staff spraying Round Up – a glyphosate that is banned in many other countries – on the weeds on her street, but with the support of her neighbours she has convinced the Council to discontinue spraying in her area, and has encouraged them to consider banning use of these herbicides full stop. This work has inspired her to pursue a web platform where projects and achievements such as this can be shared, shining a light on community initiatives and, hopefully, encouraging more. A platform such as this would enable people to 'follow the impact we're having […] and the archive of what we've accomplished so far; speeding up the connections in the network to facilitate the growth of this kind of thinking'.

Burt-O'Dea is the type of person who sees possibilities everywhere, and is willing to give the time and effort to make them a reality. She knows when to push on alone, and when to rally support from others. She also knows when to work with larger bodies, and when to act without them, forcing them to follow her lead. She is a citizen quite like no other, yet during our conversation she cites many other groups working actively to change the city for the better, too – the community in traffic-ridden Phibsborough, the residents in the nearby O'Devaney housing estate and others. She will take her time, and give each action careful consideration. The Lifeline, created by citizens for citizens, will not appear in Dublin 7 overnight, but when it does become a reality, it will have been well worth the wait.

Artwork in Dublin by street artist Maser

'I thought about what happens when you leave a place, but it does not leave you.' - Karl Whitney, Hidden City, 2014

It is estimated that one in seven young people has left Ireland since the recession struck, and I am one of them. I do not intend to stay away forever, and in the time I have spent abroad I have kept in close contact with Ireland. This research has been an opportunity to more closely engage with design in my capital city, to examine what is happening there and see if connections could be made between a variety of practices.

I have selected four projects with which to illustrate four key – but interrelated – attributes of contemporary design in Dublin. Firstly, the Dublin Honey Project shows agile design, a means of collaborating to apply design processes to an unlikely design project. Next, The Empowered City illustrates responsive design, the type of design practice used to respond directly to needs or opportunities in Dublin. I then moved to Dublin City Council Beta to show Dublin's civic design, using the example of a project redesigning the city's local authority in order to better equip it to redesign the city itself. I finished by looking at the Lifeline, demonstrating how citizens employ design processes in order to change the city for themselves. While I selected these four particularly fascinating and relevant projects, I had many more to choose from: these characteristics – sometimes on their own, but often in combination – are present in many projects, products and initiatives being pursued in Dublin.

Are these characteristics unique to Dublin? Perhaps not, but neither are they present in every city. And I believe the situation in Dublin since 2008 has brought about some of these modes of practice – they did not all exist before. When in 2011 Monocle magazine cast its gaze on a struggling Irish economy, they quoted designer Ciarán Ó'Gaora as saying, 'This isn't a recession. It's a renaissance', and it has proved somewhat true. The recession has allowed (or forced) a responsive and agile mode of working, it has encouraged the Council to approach things differently, and has pushed citizens to take some things into their own hands. Another factor in allowing these practices to develop is the city itself: its size is conducive to collaborative working and proactive engagement. It is big enough to have lots of knowledge, skills and expertise, yet small enough that all of that is close by and discoverable. And the people who live and work there are open, friendly and willing to help. Testament to this is the many honest and generous discussions I had with Dubliners in order to compile this research. Dublin is a city that is open, engaged and connected, and these are crucial in developing the methods of designing discussed here.

What remains to be seen, as Ireland begins to come out of recession and grow as an economy again, is whether these characteristics will remain in Dublin. Meaningful design work of this nature should not remain the same – it should grow and adapt with an improving economy. But Ireland needs to be careful not to revert to old habits, it needs to take what it's learned from this recession and apply it to the next boom. I hope that this study is coming not at the end of a period of responsive, agile, civic-minded design, but rather at the start of one. Let's hope our renaissance doesn't recede.

If you haven't already, read parts #1#2 and #3 of this series on design in Dublin. Thanks to Kaethe Burt-O'Dea for chatting to me about The Lifeline and Bí.

Images via 1 | 2 & 3 | 4