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Save your beautiful town.

By Hayley Farrell.

Ill fares the land to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates and men decay”, Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’ is a portrait of life in his native countryside, once a thriving community, but then destroyed by the effects of the industrial revolution.

We hear much about Dublin in terms of parks, but when compared to rural towns Dublin has an established tradition.

The main square in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, the backdrop to the  iconic raucous pro-Treaty harangue by Michael Collins in the eponymous movie languishes – no more than a car park surrounded by derelict pubs.

Many other towns, that do not typically attract tourism but rely on commerce, have turned their back to their rural setting as a result of ribbon development. The town of Longford is notably guilty of this. The wide main street, typical of a market town is crammed with cars and car parks which have hijacked most of the civic spaces, with little or no greening. Narrow footpaths and an absence of quality street furniture, planting or trees does little to encourage people out of their cars and onto the street. The town also turns its back to the rich industrial heritage it once enjoyed. The Market Square cannot become a beautiful tree lined civic space surrounding the old 1800’s Market House since it has been demolished. Approaching the town today, Shaw’s, a large retail store centred on wide spans of grey hard landscape is the focal point of the town, a prime example where owners of public space should be urged to provide greening for the community. A welcome reimagining of the town in recent years has been the opening of the Royal Canal after years of being derelict, with navigation now possible from Spencer Dock in Dublin to Clondra, and the river walk along the Camlin now offers the only direct access to public open green space from the town centre. Longford has always been a thriving town with great transport links and some fine surrounding villages. The newly restored St Mel’s Cathedral could still be the centrepiece of a heritage-sensitive landscape scheme to celebrate the re-opening after the devastating fire, an opportunity for a good quality green open space. The streetscape along the Main Street and Ballymahon Street, if enhanced with street trees, suitable street furniture and planted beds to break the depressing congestion could transform the town, with traffic Islands offering further scope for greening.

There is much good practice to follow. A number of towns and villages have planted and thereby softened their streets: Tyrrellspass and Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, Abbeyleix, Co. Laois, Adare, Co. Limerick, Dungarvin, Co. Waterford, Kilkenny and Carlow towns, Killarney, Co. Kerry, Claremorris, Co. Mayo, Ashbourne and Ardee Co. Meath, Dalkey and Leixlip in County Kildare. Birr Co. Offaly recently received an Active Travel Town Grant of nearly €1m for the enhancement of Emmet Square and other sustainable travel initiatives. Athlone Civic Centre and Square received international acclaim and many awards but like many civic spaces, the soft landscape element is lacking. Although Longford still has some potential for green infusions, one town with immense potential is Moate in Westmeath, also a market town with a wide Main Street. It too has turned its back to its countryside. This town, once heaving with traffic, ‘a bottleneck’ and a through-route for commuters travelling east to west,  now endures enervation and dilapidation due to the bypass and the downturn. The reduction of traffic now offers the town the breathing space to reinvent itself through natural resources, culture and built heritage. Unlike Longford, the town has a relatively unspoilt Quaker and industrial heritage, recognised by the County  Council with a commendable architectural conservation area designation, proposals to convert the closed classical courthouse into a library and a disused railway station in the style of Dún Laoghaire station, as well as a unique esker landscape to the south rich in biodiversity, left over from glacial deposits – with a motte and bailey.

A garish fast-food joint and a SuperValu fester incongruously in a car park by the old gaol and courthouse, where the main square should be – a space for markets and impromptu fun, linking public paths to the Esker landscape beyond. Council houses face Moate Castle, blocking the views to the  esker and river. Old farm outhouses and the adjoining a mill present a frustratingly avoided opportunity for a walkway and landscape enhancement. Rights of way could be co-ordinated and linked to the local towns of Kilbeggan, Clara, Tullamore, Lough Boora Sculpture Park and bogland visitor amenities and the River Shannon. Following the abolition of their councils last June, towns are being urged to form elected representative organisations to hold regular meetings with county councillors. Beleaguered but concerned citizens can make a tangible difference by highlighting and cherishing the natural and built assets of these towns and villages using ‘green’ town design guidelines such as the Design Guidlines report for Tyrellspass which deals with heritage predominantly, a nice example of public consultation before any developer-led madness bulldozes in again. •

Hayley Farrell designed the scheme for a park at North Kings Street, Dublin 7.