By Dr Frank O’Connor and Jude Sherry, directors of the global design agency Anois
After decades living and working away we returned to Ireland in 2018, settling in Cork City. While we fell in love with the character of the city, and in particular the friendliness of the people, we were shocked by the numbers of people struggling on the street without a home. What made this even more stark was the epidemic levels of vacancy and dereliction everywhere. We also started hearing stories of groups struggling to find any suitable spaces for community and creative work. Not to mention the city’s blight of decaying priceless heritage that’s also omnipresent. It all made no sense, whatever lens you viewed it with.
When our initial investigations were met with a cultural acceptance of ‘that’s the way things are’ and ‘you can’t do anything about it, so there is no point in trying’ we quickly realised dereliction was normalised to the detriment of the city and its communities. We also noticed that Cork was not alone. Dereliction was a huge national issue that had largely been ignored for decades.
We love exploring urban spaces, yet we were getting depressed just walking around our new home city. After an initial sense of helplessness, we started to reflect on what we had experienced in our previous home city of Amsterdam. We could attests to the success of the 1970s and 1980s movements that took the city from a state of decay and dereliction, to a place where everyone from an eight to an 80-year-old could rest, play and work. We were lucky to also have experienced the creative legacy of the squatting movement that has embedded itself into the city’s cultural offerings.
So, in June 2020, after 18 months research we started a self-funded multi-pronged strategy to end dereliction in Ireland, centred around a sustained social media campaign. Within 12 months the activity grew, with campaigners across the country looking up, speaking up, self-organising and taking action. There’s been weekly national media coverage and a number of documentaries over the last three years, along with significant international commentary. In December 2021 we were witnesses at the Houses of the Oireachtas on the #DerelictIreland movement.
Change is afoot. We’ve seen new grants and a new vacancy tax, enhanced practice that moves away from dereliction and demolition to refurbishment and reuse, a parallel arts and cultural movement as well as significant changes in societal mindsets. While there is still a long way to go, there is no doubt that the conversation has changed forever. Dereliction is no longer accepted as being normal. A key foundation of our work as system designers is the belief that people have the power to change things. In the case of dereliction we felt a responsibility to do something for ourselves, and for those around us. To use our skills and expertise to turn this waste and vandalism into an opportunity for homes, places to have fun and create.
Given our many national and global challenges #DerelictIreland is a timely reminder that our voices count but we need to mobilise from the ground up and make ourselves heard.