Here’s what most people know about Ballymun. It is a working- class suburb of north Dublin City. In the 1960s it was a particularly deprived working- class suburb of north Dublin City into which it was decided to insert a bunch of high rise concrete apartment blocks wherein, it was hoped, the good people of Ballymun would live happily ever after.
The subsequent forty years demonstrated unequivocally that happily ever after would not be happening in Ballymun and in 2004 the process of tearing down the seven, fifteen storey, towers finally began. Ballymun will forever be the watchword for squalid urban degeneracy and deprivation, a stigma that seems determined to attach itself to the area from here to eternity.
The conventional wisdom, spawned primarily by the Ballymun misadventure, is that high rise living is always going to be a bad idea, that it can never work in any context. And that just ain’t necessarily so.
What most people don’t know about Ballymun is that those seven towers were only ever intended to be one strand of a much broader, holistic community-building initiative. The holistic school of urban planning which gave us Ballymun also gave us Ballymuns all over the country of its origin, Norway, and indeed the rest of Scandinavia as well as mainland Europe. The Scandi Ballymuns are alive and kicking, thriving in fact. The Irish Ballymun has been recycled into road foundation material. Why?
Well because on this, as on so many things and God aren’t we all so sick of hearing this but, the Scandinavians did it right. They embraced the holistic model and implemented it to the full extent of its vision. We poured the concrete and bailed out, to pour more concrete somewhere else, on the pier in Dun Laoghaire to facilitate the more efficient exodus of the majority of our best and brightest, in all likelihood. The type of vision around in Ireland in the late 1960s was of the tunnel rather than the holistic variety.
Right, so what is this holistic vision that our smart-arse Norse friends got so right, and we got so wrong? Nothing that you wouldn’t expect, all intuitive stuff; green space, recreational opportunities, educational facilities, healthy public transport links, ample retail amenities, community infrastructure.
Very little if any of this happened in Ballymun. In the words of Dublin City’s Chief Architect Ali Grehan in 2015; “Unfortunately the approach adopted was singular – it was to create good quality homes and I think the homes created were good quality – but it was an urban design failure. Like so many estates built around the world at the time it was 100% public housing – 5,000 homes constructed around a roundabout … a dead end.” By the time a shred of accompanying facilities arrived, the damage had already been done.
And Ballymun has left us with a toxic aftertaste, a legacy which colours our thinking about housing in general and, more pointedly, potential solutions to the housing crisis today. High rise is an effective facet of the imperative to provide more accommodation quickly in tighter spaces. It is not the unpalatable, worse than nuclear, option it is perennially painted as.
We have Ballymun to thank for intractable obstinacy in the minds of policy makers who are, after all, typically of an age profile which ensures that Ballymun is indelibly seared into their collective psyche, for all the wrong reasons.
Since ground was broken on the construction of the Ballymun towers mankind has walked on the moon, we have been subsumed into the Common Market, Bob Dylan has released thirty eight studio albums, the Soviet Union has disappeared, the English rugby team have played in Croke Park, the entire accumulated knowledge of humanity is accessible instantaneously through a bar of soap sized portal that everyone carries at all times, petrol stations sell bunches of flowers, Kildare County Council have put a traffic light on the narrow bridge going in to Caragh. Unimaginable things have come to pass.
Give Ballymun a break. Onwards and, more pertinently, upwards.