Ruralising the heart of Dublin

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At a glance, the old Williams & Woods Ltd factory on Dublin’s Kings Inn Street might look like any other inner city concrete skeleton. It’s old, grey and not particularly pleasing on the eye. Inside however, things are beginning to change and up on the top two floors an injection of life and colour is taking place in the form of an urban farm.

Once a confectionary manufacturers and wholesaler, the building was constructed in 1910 and was the first concrete structure of its kind to be built in the city. A medley of pleasant aromas would have hung in the air around this time; smells of chocolate, fruit from the sweet jams in summer, spices in winter and the scent of freshly baked aniseed macaroons. It was also a place where the much loved Silvermints used to be wrapped, and I’m told Toblerones may have been packaged there at some stage too. When the factory eventually moved on in the early 1970’s and became a data storage warehouse, it seemed that the building’s best years lay in the past. Not so.

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After lying idle since 2006, the board cladding has just recently come off the windows and the building now looks set for a new lease of life. The four story space is now known as the ‘Chocolate Factory’ and is home to a creative community comprising of artists, designers, photographers and since last year, urban farmers. Up the long and winding steel staircase to the third floor is where you’ll find the entrance to Dublin’s Urban Farm. It’s a busy environment; there are barrels, mannequins, aqua phonic systems and tools scattered around the place. It’s a bit of a mess, but out of meagre beginnings good things grow.

Under the stewardship of founder Andrew Douglas, Urban Farm is trying to transform an unwanted, negative space into something that can be useful to the whole community. The idea behind it is to grow food in an urban environment while researching and demonstrating innovative farming techniques. It’s a bid to cut down on waste and reduce the carbon footprint of food production, as well as creating an environment conducive for learning. The farm has also just begun hosting events and workshops that provide teaching on energy saving systems, healthy food production and neighborhood regeneration.

As it stands, people coming down expecting to see an urban oasis of plants and animals might be a little bit disappointed, but it is the idea and the steady progression of such a unique project that has many Dubliners dying to get a peek.

When I got a chance to speak to Andrew Douglas, the founder and all round ideas man for the project, we met on the rooftop of the farm, surrounded by views of the city in the full glare of the midday sun. It is unusually warm for Dublin and some of the farm workers have set up a portable barbecue to take advantage of what might just be our summer. There’s vertical plant beds, blue grow barrels, a composting heap and even worm towers- oh and yes, there are chickens at our heels. Definitely not your average interview but then again there is nothing average about setting up an eco-friendly urban farm in the centre of town.

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“I always wanted to be food self-sufficient and to be self-sufficient in my living manner. To have my own area to grow in and to live off”, says Andrew Douglas or Dougie as he is also known. “Living in the city and having an eleven year old daughter, and with most of my work based centrally, moving out to the country didn’t really make sense. It made a lot more sense to have my food security and a food oasis in the city itself. What we’ve basically started here is a project to bring the countryside to us”.

The idea, he jokes, could be construed as a selfish act; a man’s craving to bring the countryside and all the trappings that go with it to his doorstep. However there is a more egalitarian aspect to the initiative, with a huge community surrounding the farm as well. One of the initiatives has seen the farm begin working with local schools. “We’re working with a few schools now. One over on Parnell Square; we actually started helping them compost their waste to achieve the Green School Flag.”

“What we are trying to do is showcase to people different food growing initiatives, be it through the aquaponics, where you have fish and plants living in a symbiotic environment, or through our micro enterprises such as collecting coffee waste from coffee shops and growing produce like oyster mushrooms on it. We think ideas like that are going to be a big success here in Dublin.”

Building community relationships and trying to get everyone involved in the farm is an impressive feature of the project, but no doubt the main advantage of having a farm in the centre of town is that it cuts out the need for food to be transported long distances. Added to that, people have a greater opportunity to buy fresh food. “Farming actually fits so well in an urban environment, we have our market just around the corner; the consumers are here”, he tells me. “When the farm is up and running, people will be able to come in and just pick and mix their salad off the roof. There’s actually a chance for people to be in contact with their farmer.”

According to Andrew and his colleague Paddy O’Kearney, who also runs City Composting, all the materials used to make the farm are ‘upcycled’. Upcycling is basically the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or for enhanced environmental value. Paddy and a group of volunteers are actually busy making plant beds out wooden pallets as the interview unfolds. Dougie explained that – “The ethos of the farm, through necessity almost, is that we up cycle all our materials. We are trying to keep the farm as one of the only fully up cycled farms in the developing world.”

Inside, down a dark and narrow staircase I am shown the beginnings of what will soon be a fish tank. Even though work hasn’t finished yet the set up still looks impressive. Into another room and there’s seed potatoes for what must be a hundred different varieties, and I can’t help but get a little excited about the prospect of this food being served in the cafe which is currently being built downstairs.

Dublin Urban Farm is still some way off being functional and productive. However, if Dougie and his team manage to do half of what is planned, it will have been a worthwhile and commendable project. Instead of the memories of sweets and chocolate, the old William and Woods Ltd building could soon be filled with an abundant array of fruits, vegetables and wildlife. I look forward to the day when I’ll be able to buy floury Dublin Urban Farm potatoes or fresh rooftop raspberries.

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By Luke Holohan

Photos: Bettina Lundmark

Illustration: Sona Harrison

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