Gardeners reclaim the half-built McMansions of the Irish countryside.
The fallout from the global economic crisis has left a haunting mark on the landscape of Ireland in the form of what are known colloquially as “ghost estates,” housing developments that in some cases were never completed, or completed but never occupied.
The country’s Department of the Environment estimated in 2010 there are 2,800 such sites. Tens of thousands of new homes were built in sprawling suburbs for tenants who never materialized. The people who actually do live in these desolate places deal not just with the pain of a bad investment and lack of community, but also with real risks - a situation dramatized by the recent death of a toddler who wandered through an unsecured fence and drowned in a puddle near an open drain. Sites with no residents at all are a blot on the countryside.
The government has been struggling to find a solution to the problem, which resulted from wildly optimistic overbuilding during the “Celtic Tiger” boom of just a few years ago, and has come to symbolize the depth of Ireland’s economic distress. The National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) is one government entity that has taken over some of the failed developments. It’s supposed to be working on making the ghost estates cleaner and more secure.
But some ordinary citizens are frustrated with NAMA’s pace, and have responded by creating a group called NAMA to Nature. Their mission, according to their Facebook page: “Rather than watch the government dither and procrastinate let's help nature take [the ghost estates] back.” They intend to start that process by planting hundreds and hundreds of trees, without asking anyone for permission.
It was through a Facebook invitation from friends that Frank Armstrong, a food writer and lecturer at University College Dublin’s Adult Education Centre, joined a NAMA to Nature planting venture. Participants met at “The Waterways” in Keshcarrigan, a small village in County Leitrim. Signs at the site still promise a bucolic housing development offering “Boating from your back door!” The reality is something else entirely, wrote Armstrong in an article on his experience in The Journal:
Much of the area is covered in hardcore, hard-packed stone that does not permit plant life to grow. Here roads were to be built. Giant mounds of styrofoam and heaps of plastic bags complete a sickening picture. ...
We were building an Ireland resembling 1950s America, and now all that remains is a scene that reminded me of when Charlton Heston’s character in the original Planet of the Apes film encounters a crumbling Statue of Liberty. It is remarkable how quickly the Irish dream dissipated.
Armstrong, along with other NAMA to Nature volunteers led by founders Serena Brabazon and Andrew Legge, planted 1,000 saplings that day, paid for by the group’s members. The police (or “gardai”) showed up in the middle of the planting, but things didn’t get ugly:
When asked who we were and what we were doing we replied that we were private individuals planting trees on public land. The gardai seemed confused.
A few phone calls were made. We agreed to leave the property if they compelled us to do so. Finally, they decided to let us carry on, expressing their personal support for our actions. The common good was recognised.
I followed up with Armstrong on email, and he told me that he had never engaged in any kind of direct action before and considers himself to be a law-abiding citizen.
But, he added, the financial situation in Ireland has created “bewilderment, suspicion, and anger.” He added, “There is a deep frustration with the government and with the wider financial systems. Unfortunately we tend to be a bit passive in our responses.”
For Armstrong and others in NAMA to Nature, digging into the ground and planting trees is one way to feel like they are doing something.