On October 29th, President Michael D. Higgins gave a powerful thought-provoking speech to an online (via Webex) meeting of people of all ages drawn from a wide strata of local society on why the movement towards transforming Galway into a National Park City is so crucial at this particular time in human history due to unprecedented Climate Change, biodiversity loss and pandemics, and why it can be a template for other cities in Ireland to follow. His talk was followed by presentations from Dan Raven Ellison, a visionary campaigner who led the successful drive to establish London as world's first National Park City; and from Kathryn Tierney, policy coordinator at the Directorate General Environment of the European Commission involved in the EU’s radical new growth strategy known as the ‘Green Deal’ with its key principles of circular economy, wildlife protection, zero pollution, clean energy, net greenhouse emissions by 2050 with funding being made available towards research, business innovation and community transition. So impressed are all three by what is happening in Galway that President Higgins agreed to become this new movement’s official patron; Dan to be its mentor; Kathryn to be its champion at EU level; whilst Duncan Stewart, Ireland’s most well-known environmentalist, is its national champion.
So what is meant by ‘Galway National Park City’ and why has it so excited these four luminaries?
The aim of this new pioneering initiative is to make our urban environment more healthier, sustainable, harmonious, beautiful, equitable with biodiversity-rich environments of quality green and blue spaces where people value, benefit from, and are strongly connected to the rest of Nature.
Over eighty (and more to follow) individuals and their respective organisations have started to come together over the last few weeks to help facilitate this process. They will form a steering committee representing the widest possible cross-section of backgrounds, professions and sectors of Galway society including education, community, health, medical, arts, environment, youth, engineering, corporate business, small business, crafts, residential neighbourhoods, scouting, direct provision, marine, waterways protection, renewable energies, makers/repairers, cycling advocacy, walking advocacy, life sciences, data science, social sciences, media, heritage, animal welfare, ecology, and urban farming. Each of these persons have in their own professional and volunteering fields been undertaking or coordinating incredible projects in their workplaces, schools, communities and neighbourhoods, sometimes over many years, to enhance and care for the city’s unique natural heritage and to help others to benefit from it. Much of the activities of these local champions often takes place without the wider general public being aware of it. The National Park City initiative will help join up and promote their activities, provide a city-wide approach and inspire others from all of the different sectors to follow suit.
A series of local speakers from diverse backgrounds outlined at the launch some of the current environmental and sustainability activities that they are involved in. SAP staff have transformed, with support from Friends of Merlin Woods, a large sterile green lawn into a lush wildflower meadow at their HQ in Parkmore, the first such conversion within a business park in the region; NUI Galway is implementing a campus wide all-embracing consultative Sustainability Strategy; residents and management at the Eglinton Direct Provision Centre have implemented organic gardening and upcycling programmes; students and staff at Galway Community College have planted a woodland, and developed compost, reuse and recycling projects; Claire Lillis, R&D manager at Aerogen, showcased a video on the Connemara Greenway that demonstrated its economic, social and environmental benefits; John O’Sullivan introduced ‘EcoEd4All’, a new Galway-piloted conservation course for Transition Year students that is being rolled out to schools nationwide; Anne Murray explained how the 2019 Galway Science and Technology Festival was the largest ever event held in Ireland on Climate Change involving businesses, NGOs, schools and colleges; Ríonach Uí Néill guided participants through the ‘Drowned Galway’ outdoor arts mural trail; and Conor Ruane gave an overview of the Galway-Roscommon Local Authority Community Waters programme.
The fact that this important gathering took place online demonstrates why a united approach is needed to transform Galway to meet the challenges that now face us in a rapidly changing world. A virus, an entity smaller than a human cell, had in a matter of a few weeks brought the most powerful species on the planet to its knees. The coronavirus pandemic is just another symptom(one of many) of humanity’s abuse of nature that is increasingly coming back to haunt us. As President Higgins said at the meeting, mankind stands at a precipice and needs to combine its individual/sectoral talents, and work together like never before in a unity of purpose to come up with solutions to the catastrophic that we have put ourselves in.
This may seem too overwhelming a task for a few thousand citizens of a small city on the western edge of Europe. But we should not underestimate ourselves. For if we combine ingenuity with a common sense practical approach by ‘thinking Global and acting Local’, we can make a significant contribution to positive change. This is what the National Park City Galway is all about.
Over last few months, the natural world came to our aid and gave us clues to what is required to turn things around. In our time of crisis, when we were confined to our homes and locality, the parks on our doorstep that many of us never actually visited before, characterised by the sights and sounds of bees and birds that we never noticed or heard before, became our place of refuge and our outdoor gym providing a ‘green prescription’ for our physical and mental health. Galwegians in unprecedented numbers took to walking, cycling, and growing organic vegetables, herbs and fruits as well as in helping neighbours through a renewed spirit of ‘Meitheal’. We also began to repair home appliances and recycle materials that we may have previously thrown out. Some of us gave a whole new lease of life to old laptops by installing new free open-source software, so that they could be used by school students who desperately required them for the new online education that was suddenly thrust upon them.
Without realising it, we were answering the call from the higher echelons of the United Nations and the European Union to transition from a linear (take, make and waste) economy to a circular economy.
Galway is strategically placed both in human and natural resources to become a world leader in sustainability and environmental repair. Surrounded by ocean, rivers, lakes, mountains, bogs and green landscapes, we can be a global centre for renewable energies, organic farming, green tourism, restoration of natural habitats and carbon retention. But we are also blessed with a creative arts and crafts sector; a vibrant community and environmental sector; a location for some of the world’s leading biomedical corporations whose products are saving lives, and IT companies whose digital technologies are bringing us all closer together; a hub for leading edge life-enhancing scientific, medical and engineering research; a centre for indigenous business innovation; a high level of volunteerism; and a flagship for schools and colleges integrating the Outdoor Classroom and Outdoor Lab into educational studies. The political life of Galway should also be praised, after all it gave Ireland a president that is respected throughout the world for his vision, sense of justice and intellect.
A few weeks ago, a presentation was given on the Galway National Park City initiative to a Special Policy Committee (SPC) of Galway City Council where it received unanimous support from the officials and councillors present. The proposal now goes to a full meeting of the council for discussion. We hope that City Hall enthusiastically becomes a fully-fledged leading active partner in this exciting endeavour to create a city for the future that is ‘Green’ as well as ‘Smart’.
We have serious problems locally including traffic congestion, urban sprawl, housing shortage, pollution and an absence of rangers in our parks. But the council should be praised for making positive strides on key environmental issues over the last few months including adopting the All Ireland Pollinator Plan, appointing a Biodiversity Officer, and putting forward proposals for public consultation on increasing the zones of attractive pedestrianisation within the city centre.
However we as citizens should be more ambitious. A safe city-wide access-for-all cycling, walking and public transport infrastructure is long overdue. The main urban parks and waterways must be connected via a network of ‘ecological corridors’, and wildlife sanctuaries should be established. Planning regulations should encourage the development of ‘urban villages’ and green features such as the use of renewable energies, rooftop/vertical gardens, rainwater collection systems, community green space and native planting areas.
The boreens (country lanes) in the rural areas of the city such as Castlegar, Ballinfoile and Menlo should be protected and promoted as walking routes. The Dyke Road has the unique potential to be an inspiring green/blue hub out of which radiates the Connemara Greenway (by constructing a bridge over the old railway pillars), the Terryland Forest Park, a boreen network emanating out to the rural hinterland towards Coolough, Carrowbrowne and beyond; and a Corrib waterways that stretches to Mayo.
In the past when City Hall came together in a partnership approach with the wider community, extraordinary unprecedented measures were achieved that placed Galway at the forefront of sustainability and environmental care within Ireland. These included the establishment of the country’s first pro-recycling 3 bin domestic waste collection system; the Cash-for-Cans scheme and Ireland’s largest community urban woodlands project (Terryland Forest Park).
In 2020, a united vision and a spirit of togetherness in Galway can help us be part of creating a new more caring post-Covid world where we work with the rest of Nature and not against it.
Brendan Smith, interim convenor, Galway National Park City