Back from Ireland after visiting Dublin and learning about some of its urban agriculture projects and initiatives, I decided to share with you why I believe this city is becoming one of the best urban farming hubs.
The main highlight of my visit was meeting with Andrew Douglas, founder of UrbanFarm. Since 2012, he has designed and implemented a wide range of horticultural projects for communities, businesses, and educational institutions for the purpose of healthy food production, neighborhood revitalization, and community engagement. As we toured the city, Andrew introduced me to some of the main urban agriculture activities of the past 5 years. To build a thriving and lasting urban agriculture landscape, it is essential to go beyond answering only the lifestyle and impact questions. Developing skill sets that matter in today’s world, elaborating scalable social enterprise models, building partnerships that benefit all stakeholders, applying efficient and productive urban farming techniques, as well as facilitating access to funding opportunities are essential for helping sustain any projects in this field. It is exactly what is happening in Dublin and here’s what’s fuelling it.
1. Engaging Projects Involving High School Students and S.T.E.M.
In 2015, Andrew’s Urban Farm helped to build the Belvedere College SJ Urban Farm Project. Since then, students are growing crops, farming fish and cultivating fungi in a glass-roofed science laboratory called the GROWlab. It features an aquaponic and hydroponic farm, as well as beehives on the rooftop. This innovative concept is teaching sustainability in the city and allows students to learn science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (S.T.E.M.) as they apply modern urban farming techniques. It is a year-round space to learn about plant life cycles, green technology, and sustainable farming practices.
Using smart technologies like interactive displays, students monitor and record variables in humidity, temperature, PH, EC, DO inside and outside the GROWlab. Combined with a first-hand experience growing salad, sprouting microgreens, vertical hydroponic and aquaponic farming, students cover topics such as biology, physics, and earth sciences. It is a school-based business where the harvests are sold to parents, local farmers’ markets, and restaurants, allowing students to learn the economic dimension of urban farming as well.
In 2016, The Belvedere College SJ won the Global High School category of the prestigious Zayed Future Energy Prize. Their project to create an ‘off-grid’ urban farm in Dublin city center received $100,000 in funding to allow for the expansion of their current urban farm project on the roof-top space in Belvedere College, showing the high socioeconomic potential of projects that involve students, institutions and the community.
Quick fact: Ireland has one of the youngest populations in Europe and other Western countries with a median age of 36.4 years, compared to Germany at 46.8, Canada at 42, France at 41.2 and the United States at 37.9 (source: World Population Review)..
Beyond being awesomely cool, “this project is providing tomorrow’s decision-makers with an elevated set of skills, a broader socioeconomic perspective and a lasting sense of commitment to lead the global community in an environmentally efficient way”, Andrew said. Watch this video prepared and filmed by students to explain their Urban Farming Project:
2. Resources to Ideate, Build and Scale Your Social Enterprise
Imagine if we could solve the world’s problems at a local level at the same rate we solve technology problems at a global level. That is the purpose of “The Ladder” - learn Design Sprints: solving real problems for local non-profit organizations and communities. The Ladder is a community of over 600 cross-functional professionals organized to help Ireland (and other countries) reach their UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 using innovation and technology frameworks.
Ruta Danyte, a facilitator at The Ladder, explained that non-profit organizations, communities, and innovators can scale their impact using the same frameworks that technology companies use to scale globally. The Ladder runs direct action workshops with these frameworks called Sprints to target a specific problem or opportunity, ideate, develop solutions, prototype and test with real users. The program gives real usable data for participants to impact, scale and help reach the Sustainable Development Goals.
“The Design Sprints highly tested and structured approach can save months of efforts [and money] working on the wrong problem or solution” - Ruta Danyte
The Jump-Start Program is a pilot-project, supported by Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), Dublin City Council (DCC) and the Irish Social Enterprise Network (ISEN). It is one of the resources I had the opportunity to explore during my stay. It is free for those who qualify and involves a series of workshops. The program defines a social enterprise as “a sustainable business which funds itself by selling goods and/or services and uses its profits to fund its social objective”. The workshops are designed to equip social entrepreneurs with the skills to develop and refine their social enterprise idea, understand the process of founding, developing, and managing a social enterprise, as well as to produce a comprehensive and attractive business plan for potential investors.
3. Projects in Partnership with Local Authority, Businesses, and Real Estate Developers
The Urban Farm’s Thank Potato Project wanted to demonstrate how the humble potato connects with people from all cultures and has the ability to affect positive social changes. It aimed to show the importance of growing potatoes in cities to improve food security. Andrew explained that the potato is the fourth most important food crop in the world (after corn, wheat, and rice), but so far, it has not featured prominently in the debate on food security.
Through a series of exhibitions in partnership with local authorities and other organizations, the project demonstrated that potato crop is of key importance as it provides high nutrition, is an adaptive species for climate change, uses less water per nutritional output than all other major food sources and one of the few crops that can actually sustain life on its own. Urban Farm’s Thank Potato collection was grown in up-cycled water cooler bottles and artificial grass offcuts, utilizing waste stream materials to house and grow the potato plants.
The Urban Farm’s Rooftop Potato Project partnered with Chef Pádraic Óg Gallagher’s Boxty House Restaurant to create a whole new food experience. As mentioned on Boxty House website, “Pádraic Óg Gallagher’s passion for using natural ingredients and the use of carefully chosen artisan food producers from Ireland underpin the Boxty House experience”, which made such partnership a perfect opportunity to stimulate interests on local food.
The Bridge Foot Community Garden has a long history going back to 2008. Richard Taplin, from the Dublin Men’s Shed and one of the two administrators of this community garden, explained that originally it was a social housing site of 5 blocks which were demolished to be refurbished. Due to the economic crash of 2008, it was never redeveloped. Hence, community members got together and created an allotment site with chicken/pigeon loft and 60 small allotments. Managing such a large site was challenging and without proper direction, Dublin City Council (DCC) came and bulldozed the site. Due to site dereliction, the area had a lot of trouble with vandalism and drug use. After some local pressure, the community regained access to a 1⁄4 of the site which is just under an acre, with 20 individual allotments and a large community garden managed by the DCC. Allotments cost 120 Euros per year, accessible 7 days per week, from 8am to 8pm. With the constant use of the site, it reduced vandalism as time went by and needles have not been found in this area since.
“My drive is to enhance our community, create local jobs, training, and a creative all-inclusive space.” - Richard Taplin
To keep community interest and engagement, Richard and other members of the community have developed different partnerships with other local organizations, held Grow It Yourself (GIY) meetups, several workshops and have started a Cottage Market to promote homemade, handmade and locally grown food. The next step is to set up a social enterprise, producing and selling edible products, as well as creating events and festivals. In 2016, news broke about the plans for a real estate development on the site and the “Save the Park” campaign was initiated. Since then, members of the community garden got involved in local decision making. Now, their campaign is not about stopping homes being built, but to ensure they will get a long-term agreement to keep the community park alive and becoming a full part of the real estate development project.
The Dublin Honey Project is a fascinating one. With beehives spread over the city rooftops and some suburban fields, it aims to produce raw honey from each of the postcodes of Dublin, creating flavors specific to each neighborhood. Architect Gearóid Carvill and photographer Kieran Harnett initiated the Dublin Honey Project and are running it in their spare time. The project partnered with the Belvedere College, located downtown, to have beehives on its rooftop. Honey harvested across the city is sold at farmers’ markets and some trendy shops. This initiative provides a unique honey experience, as each postcode has its own taste and reflects what’s available for bees near the hives. Not only does it create community pride around the honey produced in each neighborhood, it helps improve the environment and biodiversity in the city.
4. Efficient and Productive Urban Farming with Young Entrepreneurs
Martin, Jason, and Shane are urban farming entrepreneurs in their early twenties. They have founded The Market Gnomes, a bio-intensive urban farm that they operate on the campus of Dublin City University (DCU). While constantly honing and refining their skills, they supply products to the local community, farmers markets, and restaurants. Inspired by the work of Curtis Stone and Jean-Martin Fortier, they developed an efficient, productive and profitable business model that gave a second life to the DCU community garden, which was abandoned once university funds that maintained it dried out.
I must say, I was impressed by the quality of the products grown and the efficiency of their operations. Although the Gnomes’ approach is pretty advanced and unique in Dublin, their success is certainly one that can inspire others from their generation to start similar projects.
5 . Funding Opportunities
Community-led projects need more than engagement on social media and must go beyond creating inspirational posts. To make a truly sustainable impact, they need to find the right idea for the right problem and plan a solid revenue stream attached to it, whether it is for-profit or non-profit. Once this is all done, access to some cash to back the project is essential to make things happen. Dublin City Council and the Irish government have made different types of funding opportunities and grants available for community-led projects, such as environmental or climate-related R&D, sustainable business ideas, high-potential social enterprises, and festivals. Here are some examples of the resources available:
No matter how many ideas, innovations, projects or funding opportunities, the strongest asset for a thriving and sustainable urban agriculture landscape is community engagement. Creating strong community ties is the mortar of successful sustainable food projects. Although there is still work to do in Dublin, projects previously mentioned have demonstrated the strong will to link members of the community and work together towards a common goal: creating sustainable socioeconomic possibilities for the well-being of all Dubliners.
RakeAround is a free e-commerce platform that facilitates sales and purchases of urban agriculture products, grown by and for people living in the same city or neighborhood.
Want to get involved and start selling your homegrown in your neighbourhood? Click on the link below.
About the author
Dominique is the co-founder of RakeAround. For him, demographic trends, the democratization of technology and the personalization of food will shape food systems of the 21st century.