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Green Flag Award for Parks in Ireland: 5 years of progress

A young rabbit kitten explores the edge of its meadow within Newbridge Demesne, Fingal County Council. Photo: Robert Moss.

Robert Moss, Green Flag Award for Parks manager, Republic of Ireland, provides an overview of the scheme since its inception in 2015.


Sports & Parks

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21 May 2020

by Robert Moss, Green Flag Award for Parks manager, Republic of Ireland

In Ireland the current curtailment on our movements and life-style due to the Covid-19 epidemic has been less harsh than that faced in other European countries, such as in Spain where parks have been closed, only opening again to the public on May 2.

Thankfully, our public parks and gardens remain largely open, and now more than ever they offer relief from confinement and routine.

Especially as spring-time nature is now leaping into life, and normally, so too would the event schedules of many of our favourite parks and gardens.

The importance of safely managed and well-run public green space has been highlighted by their increased usage during the Covid-19 lockdown for recreation and exercise.

Parks are also serving an important role in providing sites for emergency infrastructure during this crisis, as our densely packed cities and urban areas do not otherwise lend themselves to accommodate such temporary solutions.

The Royal Hospital Kilmainham Park serves as an improvised landing site for an Air Corps Agusta Westland AW139, earlier in March, 2020. Photo: Robert Moss.

In Dublin 8 alone, the Phoenix Park has been able to accommodate the setup of a drive-through testing centre and the Royal Hospital Kilmainham Park has been converted into a landing site for Air Corps Helicopters.

These are serving as air ambulances bringing critical patients into the centre of Dublin before being taken on to hospital by ambulance.

Connecting people with nature

The importance of Ireland’s public parks and gardens has been promoted significantly since An Taisce EEU introduced the Green Flag Award for Parks Scheme as a pilot programme back in 2015.

This scheme delivers an international standard for well managed public parks and green spaces that are freely accessible to the public. While its activities deliver multiple wins for park operators and users, in its simplest form, the scheme acknowledges and accredits best practice for the sustainable management of our parks and other public green spaces.

Corkagh Park from South Dublin show their Green Flag on the steps of Castletown House on Thursday, July 19, 2018. Photograph: N. Culhane: 2018.

Now operating across most local authorities, National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) sites, and many Office of Public Works (OPW) parks and gardens nationwide, the scope of the Green Flag Award Scheme is quite holistic. It reviews and advises the operations of parks using criteria that range across good maintenance, safety, providing amenities for all, community engagement, and of particular interest to An Taisce, the sustainable management of biodiversity and environment within public parks and gardens.

Gardens and green spaces are of great benefit throughout our built environment, from street trees to private gardens, but it is within our parks where we can come closest to what may be considered natural habitat.

Here, within continuous and often interconnected tree cover, the greatest refuges for wildlife can be found within towns and cities.

It is worth dwelling on their importance in this regard because although some 31% of the world’s land area is covered in forest, this delivers 80% of the world’s terrestrial ecology. 

A young rabbit kitten explores the edge of its meadow within Newbridge Demesne, Fingal County Council. Photograph: Robert Moss.

The positive effect of public parks on our health and well-being has been accepted since they first began to appear in towns and cities back in the 19th century.

What is still not sufficiently recognised is just how important they are, and how their benefit operates in multiple ways.

At the Dublin “Climate Brave” Conference in February this year, Dr Maria Neira, director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) department of environment, climate change and health, told the conference that seven million people die every year from air pollution – the same level of mortality associated with tobacco.

As well as the obvious and long-established benefits of healthy exercise and leisure for those of us living in an urban setting, park trees and foliage also contribute significantly to the removal of airborne pollutants.

Because parks serve as a bridge from the countryside to urban life, they reconnect us to nature, both on an individual and at societal level.

The growth and benefits of Green Flag Award Parks

Internationally, the scheme now operates across 15 countries where nearly 2,100 sites were accredited to Green Flag Award status in 2019. 

In 2019, Irish Green Flag Award sites increased to 60 accredited public green spaces. These include parks, gardens, national parks, historic graveyards, university campuses, and community gardens.

This sees Ireland maintain its global position as the most highly awarded Green Flag Award destination besides the UK where the scheme first began back in 1996. 

The growth to-date of the Green Flag Award Scheme in Ireland.

Twenty-two different Irish local authorities and public estate management organisations, co-partnering with the Green Flag Award Scheme in 2019, led to 2,048 hectares of public green space being managed to Green Flag Award standards across the country.

This is set to increase further this year with 28 organisations now engaged with the Green Flag Award Scheme. As the scheme delivers on many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, this also helps underpin government policy. These goals are being delivered through multiple Green Flag Award Scheme criteria, but most significantly the following activities:

  • Waste minimisation.
  • Chemical usage reduction/elimination.
  • Pollinator plan-friendly management.

The UN Sustainability Goals have been highly successful as a vehicle for addressing environmental improvement initiatives. They have been embraced by the Department of Communications, Climate Action & Environment (DCCAE) which has created a sustainable development goals section within environment policy.

They are addressed within Dublin City Council’s 2020 corporate plan, and, since 2015, many community engagement events have utilised the sustainability goals as a vehicle to effect change locally.

These UN Sustainable Development Goals can be seen as the top tier in a multi-layered policy hierarchy.

They have fed into the formulation of EU thematic objectives which direct where and on what EU funding is allocated. In turn, this shapes our own national policy which then directs the regional and local government policy on spatial, development, biodiversity, as well as climate action.

Consequently, the Green Flag Award for Parks Scheme is also delivering on sustainability and climate change actions that support these strategic plans locally, regionally, nationally, and at EU level.

These plans include:

  • The National Planning Framework.
  • The National Biodiversity Action Plan.
  • The National Climate Action Plan.
  • The EMR Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy.
  • Various EU thematic objectives under sustainability and inclusivity.

The scheme is a high-value asset within the Irish Public Sector, delivering annual site surveys, protecting, promoting, and connecting a wide variety of parks, gardens, national parks, country estates, greenways, and nature reserves.

The criteria of the scheme also provide a vital community engagement framework that will be important for Ireland in reaching its climate action goals.

The level of community engagement with the Green Flag Award Scheme was significantly increased in 2018 when An Taisce EEU introduced the Green Flag Community Award into Ireland, in partnership with the Department of Rural and Community Development (DRCD).

The government department supports the operation of the community element to the Green Flag Award Scheme. This encompasses community gardens, community parks, allotments, and other community-run green spaces.

By doing so, they have enabled us to provide Ireland’s community green space projects with access to the wider network of Green Flag Award judges, and best practice management within the more formal provision of public green space. In so doing, we build a very constructive conduit for information, knowledge, and skill-share between the professional and voluntary green space management sectors.

Minister for Rural and Community Development, Michael Ring, presents Knockvicar Organic Garden with their 2018 Green Flag Community Award at the National Museum of Country Life on August 17, 2018. Photo: D. Loftus 2018.

The Local Government Management Agency also sees the importance of the Green Flag Award to local authorities, and how the scheme is now strongly embedded with local authority green space operations here in Ireland.

The agency’s aims are to meet the needs of local authorities and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government (DHPLG) on researching emerging and identified issues. They take a national and regional view of local authority operations and policies – and advise accordingly. They have and continue to be strong advocates of the Green Flag Award Scheme and its success here in Ireland.

The future importance of parks

Since the start of the current Covid-19 crisis, there has been much commentary about how society will change when the worst of this epidemic is behind us; about how governments will need to re-calibrate their values and re-prioritise where and how we spend our money.

This debate is particularly strong within environmentalism, where many see this epidemic as a natural result of reckless environmental exploitation anyway.

Most people probably understand that such a significant societal change will not emerge without a struggle, but what should also be clear is that it will not happen without solutions. For societies to progress, they need to be able to exploit workable options for improvement – they rarely change solely in response to complaints about the status quo. 

To understand how the Green Flag Award Scheme will assist with our future development, it is necessary to look at recent government strategic planning for guiding our development and investment over the coming years.

This was set out in 2018 by The National Planning Framework (NPF), which contains a policy objective to deliver 550,000 additional households up to 2040. The national framework also states that “it will be necessary to encourage proportionally higher levels of population growth in Ireland’s five cities”.

In the context of the new NPF, now adopted by government, Minister Eoghan Murphy stated that “urban development in Ireland therefore needs a lot more apartment provision so that we can enable our cities and towns to become the places that people want to see in a modern society”.

Clearly, with so much new housing required within our cities, we are faced with significantly more dense development of our urban landscape in the future.

This will need to be accompanied by appropriate services, facilities, and amenities to make such development successful in the long term.

The NPF itself aligns with the aims of the Green Flag Award Scheme with the objective to “Identify and strengthen the value of greenbelts and green spaces at a regional and city scale. . . to allow for the long-term strategic expansion of urban areas”.

To achieve this, it is advantageous to utilise the Green Flag Award for Parks Scheme as a tool for supporting ministerial policy, at the local authority level. 

The reasoning behind An Taisce EEU introducing the Green Flag Award for Parks Scheme into Ireland was because it made sense; its internationally proven, assists local governments hugely, its aligned with government policy, and environmentally it is a win-win concept.

There is no disaffected third party. The scheme is also highly regarded by park operators, as it is credited with being a cost-effective way to raise the quality of green space and people’s engagement with it. For park operators, it offers a cheap and credible way to safeguard the capital investment made in new and existing green space sites. 

With the expansion of the Green Flag Award Scheme to more diverse types of public green space from 2019 onwards, we are now seeing new types of public green space engage with the scheme.

New applicants such as greenways and nature parks on reclaimed landfill sites may not have been first on the list for applicant sites for local authorities. However, these new green spaces bring with them a wealth of hard won knowledge on how to integrate such sites with spatial planning, how to promote their use, and even down to details such as what trees can and can’t grow on sites where drainage and soil type have been radically altered by their previous usage.

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