Terryland Forest Park: Outdoor Classroom, Outdoor Laboratory & the People's Park

The following was an article that I wrote which was published  recently as the centre-page spread in  the Galway City Tribune newspaper:

Untapped Tourism, Health and Environmental Benefits of Terryland Forest Park
Dear Editor,
The solution to some of the most serious problems impacting on global society today from man-made climate change to rising levels of mental illness and obesity in children lies within our city’s boundaries.  But Galway City Council’s failure to fully exploit the wonderful natural resources that they manage or to engage meaningfully with communities on the issue is not what one expects from a taxpayer-funded public service institution and is only contributing negatively to the environment and the health of the population-at-large. 

March 200: First Community Planting (Plantathon) attracted over 3,000 people
The Terryland Forest Park (aka the “People’s Park”) was recognised in its heyday internationally as a flagship for community environmental engagement as well as ‘best practice’ in developing natural habitats/ecological corridors and protecting indigenous biodiversity within a modern city setting. Its potential as an urban green resource for tourism and as a unique Outdoor Classroom and Outdoor Laboratory for schools and colleges is enormous. But years of indifference by the higher echelons of City Hall has alienated the general public from something that they themselves created. A once proud citizen-planted urban forest is being forgotten and, as with other green spaces across the city, has become a magnet for anti-social behaviour, bush-drinking and waste dumping. The controversy last autumn over the spread of the dangerous invasive species known as Japanese Knotweed as a result of drainage works along the Terryland River would never have happened if the park’s multi-sectoral steering committee, with a membership that included the OPW, An Taisce, NUIG, HSE, schools, ecologists and local residents, had not been abandoned in 2012 by City Hall. 

Yet it is not to late to save this vital green landscape that can, with a new proactive partnership approach, live up to its motto as the ‘Lungs of the City’.

Without trees humanity will cease to exist. They along with other plants produce the oxygen that gives us life. Based on scientific calculations the approximate 100,000 native Irish trees in Terryland, planted by citizens, school children, visitors and council staff in great Plantathon gatherings since 2000, absorb over a decade 3,800 metric tons of the carbon dioxide gas that is contributing to global warming; offset the climate impact of 800 cars for one year; supply the oxygen needs of up to 400,000 people each day and provide over 4.64 billion Euros worth of air pollution control every 50 years. 
Forests are central to biodiversity, supporting more species than any other habitat. For instance, a single oak tree can be home to over four hundred different types of insects, fungi, plants, birds and mammals. 
Until recently the sights, sounds and smells of the wild were an integral part of our lives. The majority of Irish people over fifty years of age have happy childhood memories of playing conkers, climbing trees, identifying different bird songs, dipping into rock pools, collecting leaves for art classes, making daisy flower chains and picking blackberries to bring home to their mothers to make jam. 
Modern research clearly demonstrates that contact with the natural environment is highly beneficial to children’s physical health, emotional well being and education. US, UK and European studies show that patients recover better after surgery if they have a view of nature through hospital windows; that planting trees in housing estates reduces aggression and fear amongst residents helping to change ‘concrete jungles’ into ‘leafy suburbs’; that children diagnosed with ADHD improve when they are exposed to nature and that getting one’s hands covered in clay makes us happier due to the presence of  ‘mycobacterium vaccae’ in organic soils that triggers the release of the hormone Serotonim in the human body which elevates mood and decreases anxiety.

But too many parents today are unknowingly causing harm to their offspring by isolating them from the ‘Great Outdoors’. Computer screens, concerns about the dangers lurking on the street or in the park as well as fears about vehicle traffic means that we are confining children more and more indoors. A Natural England report shows that only 10% of children now experience woodland play as opposed to 40% of their parent’s generation.  The UK National Trust recently promoted the use of ‘forest schools’ because of the positive effect that they have on children with emotional or behavioural difficulties. 
Forests and associated wildlife feature prominently in our Celtic spiritual and cultural heritage.
With its diverse network of woodlands, beaches, rivers and farmlands, Galway city has opportunities to integrate hands-on nature studies and outdoor activities into the everyday lives of our youth. Galway City Council in 1999 appointed its first Superintendent of Parks (Stephen Walsh) and became an enthusiastic advocate of the social and learning benefits of nature by establishing a multi-sectoral steering committee - whose membership were drawn from educational, artistic, residents, environmental, health interests as well as from different internal council departments -  to transform a new green space as proposed by local communities into an urban riverine woodland that was named the Terryland Forest Park. 
Regular community tree and wild flower planting festivals gave citizens of all ages a sense of ownership, civic pride and loyalty towards a man-made natural habitat that, in spite of an existing intrusive road network, had the potential to become a ‘wildlife corridor’ linking the River Corrib to the farmlands of east Galway. 
But things later started to stagnate especially when council officials in 2007 tried to build a major road through the park, which was stopped in its tracks by widespread public opposition.  City Hall then arbitrarily abolished the steering committee. 
Only slowly were the people once again allowed to participate in shaping the future direction of Terryland commencing with the creation of a vibrant neighbourhood organic garden in the Ballinfoile section of the Park. In 2012, the re-establishment of the steering committee supported by conservation volunteers and park staff led quickly and all too briefly to a series of guided nature walks, family picnics, a Latino dance fest, eco-art projects, mass tree plantings and ongoing weekly park cleanups in Terryland.   
Other initiatives included the allocation of HSE funds towards the installation of outdoor exercise equipment; the digital mapping of a series of woodland walk trails; restoration of a fleet of High Nelly bikes for touring the park and a major biodiversity survey carried out by ecologist Tom Cuffe. The park was one of the main themes of the Tulca Visual Arts Festival 2013 with a photographic exhibition by Robert Ellis. Terryland Castle has became a focal point for Slí na gCaisleán, a leisurely 25km looped ‘Off the Beaten Track’ heritage cycle trail connecting seven castles in Galway city and county, that could if further developed jointly by the two local authorities, become a national green route with significant benefits to tourism and local communities alike. 

Over the last few weeks, NUI Galway scientists, schools, community groups and environmentalists are discussing  ways of finally transforming the woodland into the much anticipated Outdoor Classroom with features such as rustic wooden benches and tables, autumn time wild fruit collection forays and springtime animal forensic detective challenges. 

Scientific research is being done for a series of attractive Irish/English information signs that would be placed in the now empty graffiti-covered display stands that are dotted throughout the park, thus creating a network of educational trails. The signs would identify the wonderful range of flora and fauna that live within the meadows, woodlands, wetlands, farmlands and rock outcrops of this important wildlife reserve.  
Other enthusiasts want to use traditional scythes to hand-cut grass in order to regenerate wild flower meadows;
repair stone walls, hedgerows and paths, and to establish a volunteer Park Rangers unit to regularly patrol the park as well as to provide regular guided walks to visitors. The Galway City Partnership is endeavouring to introduce a Tús work project scheme into the area.
The discovery last year of the bodies of eight British soldiers from the Williamite Wars near to the Terryland Castle is an example of the rich tapestry of historical sites that exist in the park which cover the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Medieval, Renaissance, Cromwellian and Victorian periods. 

The National Roads Authority (NRA) is now considering following the example of other countries in building ‘green bridges’ to overcome habitat fragmentation caused by road construction. Surely now is the time to ask the organisation to consider such with regard to Bóthar na Traobh which dissects the park into two halves at its northern sector?  Artists have pointed out that the park should once again be used as a regular outdoor theatre and artist venue thereby providing an added dimension to the local authority’s bid to secure the title of ‘City of Culture’.

But the council-led steering committee has not been allowed to meet since its brief resurrection in 2012, which has stifled many of the aforementioned proposals. As nature abhors a vacuum, groups of anti-social aggressive drinkers are now starting to congregate on evenings and nights in certain areas of the park, leaving behind massive quantities of cans, bottles, burnt palettes as well as human faeces. These negative activities will continue as Garda and community wardens do not or will not patrol our city parks.

As someone who along with a small band of trusty volunteers organise weekly park clean ups, I am shocked by the level of inertia that we sometimes encounter in City Hall in our efforts to combat vandalism and littering.  Time and time again when we report rubbish that is to difficult for us to move, we encounter reasons why it cannot be removed in the short, medium or even in the long term or why prosecutions cannot be undertaken. In one example, I single-handedly had to remove twenty five bags of domestic rubbish dumped in the park and store in my property over one Christmas when the council refused to remove the refuse before the holidays. I wanted to ensure that walkers did not have to suffer the sight of litter-covered woodlands during the festive season.

Whilst some of the most visionary, hardest working, civic-minded people that I have ever known serve within City Hall, nevertheless there is a fundamental flaw within the organisation’s structure that the new City Manager must rectify as a matter of priority. Correspondence to officialdom is often ignored, there can be a puzzling disconnect between different departments within Galway City Council as well as their relationships to external bodies such as the community sector that is undermining public confidence in the local authority. The Terryland Forest Park is one prime example of where Parks, Planning, Heritage, Arts, Community, Transport and the Environment could and should be coordinating their activities as part of an agreed joint strategy with the social partners as was once the case.  The hand of friendship being extended by civic minded unpaid volunteers engagement is sometimes cut off rather than reciprocated. Hence I have requested that the new City Manager Brendan McGrath support the resourcing and reactivation of  the Terryland Forest Park steering committee as well as request the Garda Síochána, Galway City Partnership, Inland Fisheries Ireland, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the NRA as well as adjoining business interests to become members.

Working together we can make this green resource that, possessing the recreational opportunities of Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green combined with the natural beauty of England’s New Forest, has the potential to benefit tourism, scientific research, schools, local communities, the environment and the health of our children. 
Let is make 2014 theYear of the Forest when peoples of all ages will use our greatest natural resources to benefit themselves and to help save the planet in the process. Galway’s image as an ‘Arts City’, its growing reputation as a ‘Digital City’ can be complimented by ‘Forest City’ with a new proactive council-community-schools-colleges-business partnership.

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