2 Show the Lif­fey some love

The health and pros­per­ity of Dublin de­pends on the nat­u­ral world the city sprang from

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Paddy Wood­worth

‘In Wild­ness,” the early Amer­i­can en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Henry David Thoreau wrote, “lies the preser­va­tion of the World.” It’s un­for­tu­nate that this sen­tence, torn from its rich con­text in his es­say Walk­ing, has be­come a slo­gan for “wilder­ness”, for an idea of na­ture di­vorced from hu­man civil­i­sa­tion.

In fact, Thoreau was say­ing the op­po­site: na­ture and civil­i­sa­tion are in­ti­mately con­nected. So the health and pros­per­ity of a city like Dublin is di­rectly de­pen­dent on the health and in­tegrity of the nat­u­ral world from which it has grown. Re­cip­ro­cally, the health and in­tegrity of that nat­u­ral world, from the Dublin and Wick­low moun­tains to the Ir­ish Sea, de­pend in large mea­sure on their re­la­tion­ship with the cap­i­tal.

We can­not, then, “fix” Dublin in iso­la­tion from its hin­ter­land. But it’s not easy to see this. We live in houses and work in of­fices and fac­to­ries that shield us from sun, rain and wind; we buy food so pro­cessed and wrapped that its nat­u­ral ori­gins be­come in­vis­i­ble; when we flush our toi­lets or drive our cars we can­not see the im­pacts our ev­ery­day ac­tions have on the en­vi­ron­ment.

To­day, how­ever, the en­vi­ron­ment is send­ing us un­mis­take­able feed­back mes­sages, warn­ing us that our con­sumer cul­ture is push­ing our nat­u­ral sup­port sys­tems to­wards, and be­yond, a num­ber of crit­i­cal break­ing points. It’s be­com­ing im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore the in­crease in ex­treme weather events, the rise in sea lev­els. You may say that we are not very in­ter­ested in the en­vi­ron­ment but, as Leon Trot­sky said about war, the en­vi­ron­ment is cer­tainly in­ter­ested in us.

And at a more sub­tle level, we are learn­ing that our ex­treme alien­ation from the nat­u­ral world car­ries a high price in phys­i­cal and men­tal health. We are be­gin­ning to wake up to the con­nec­tion be­tween city and coun­try­side, be­tween the wild and our world.

So what can Dublin­ers do, act­ing lo­cally, to cre­ate a health­ier, more sus­tain­able city, a nat­u­ral cap­i­tal?

A use­ful first step might a sim­ple one: just go down to your lo­cal river­side, whether that hap­pens to be the Lif­fey, the Dod­der, the Tolka, or any of their trib­u­taries, how­ever small.

Rivers are pow­er­ful and tan­gi­ble re­minders that ev­ery­thing in our world is con­nected to ev­ery­thing else. Much of what we do, from the bath­room to the board­room, ends up in a river; wa­ter qual­ity is a good in­di­ca­tor of the gen­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal qual­ity of the catch­ment area it drains. And rivers are, as Mark Boy­den of the in­no­va­tive Stream­scapes or­gan­i­sa­tion has shown, places that unite and en­gage dif­fer­ent sec­tions of com­mu­ni­ties in prob­lem-solv­ing.

James Joyce cap­tured some­thing of Dublin’s web of nat­u­ral link­ages through his evo­ca­tion of the Lif­fey in the open­ing line of Fin­negans Wake: “river­run, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by. . . re­cir­cu­la­tion back to Howth Cas­tle and En­vi­rons”.


But the river’s con­nec­tions stretch even fur­ther than Joyce chose to imag­ine. The state of the Lif­fey at O’Con­nell Bridge de­pends on the state of the Wick­low up­lands, and of all of the land and vil­lages and towns along and above its banks as it flows down, through three coun­ties and 120 km be­fore reach­ing the city.

The high bogs where the river orig­i­nates are de­graded by over-graz­ing, drainage and un­con­trolled burn­ing. Its banks are of­ten un­sta­ble and prone to ero­sion through re­moval of the river­side trees that used to pro­tect them.

The river suf­fers di­rectly from vary­ing de­grees of agri­cul­tural, in­dus­trial and do­mes­tic ef­flu­ents en route – and of course within the city it­self. Three ESB dams, and mas­sive ab­strac­tion of wa­ter, have dras­ti­cally al­tered its flows and vol­ume. Wet­lands, which his­tor­i­cally acted as nat­u­ral sponges that could ab­sorb heavy flows, have of­ten been drained or paved over, leav­ing us more

and more vul­ner­a­ble to flood­ing.

The degra­da­tion and de­pop­u­la­tion of our up­lands has cre­ated a silent so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal tragedy, that af­fects the city. It would help bridge our no­to­ri­ous ur­ban-ru­ral di­vide if the cap­i­tal in­vested in as­sist­ing Wick­low Up­lands Coun­cil to re­store this re­source. Rewet­ting the bogs, con­trol­ling fires, and plant­ing na­tive broadleaf wood­lands and restor­ing or even cre­at­ing wet­lands at ap­pro­pri­ate points would bring the city mul­ti­ple ben­e­fits.

It would re­duce down­stream flood­ing, de­ter ero­sion and sil­ta­tion, help se­quester car­bon and mit­i­gate cli­mate change. Wild flow­ers could flour­ish again in all these habi­tats, sus­tain­ing the be­lea­guered bees whose pol­li­na­tion is cru­cial to our agri­cul­ture.

It would pro­vide ben­e­fi­cial, beau­ti­ful and bio­di­verse places for ur­ban dwellers en­joy re­cre­ation. Man­ag­ing the river catch­ment holis­ti­cally, from sky­line to sea, is es­sen­tial to im­prov­ing the well-be­ing of city and coun­try dwellers alike.

This might sound like a soft-headed en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist’s im­prac­ti­cal fan­tasy. But just such a “‘whole wa­ter­shed ap­proach” has in­formed the poli­cies of sev­eral hard-headed city coun­cils, per­haps most no­tably New York. When wa­ter treat­ment plants in the Big Ap­ple be­gan to fail in the 1990s, the au­thor­i­ties made a re­mark­able de­ci­sion.

In­stead of pay­ing bil­lions for new plants, they de­cided to in­vest less, but still sub­stan­tially, in a land­mark “nat­u­ral cap­i­tal” project in the Catskill and Adiron­dack moun­tains, the source of the city’s wa­ter sup­ply.

They paid the farm­ers, landown­ers and busi­nesses up­stream to re­duce ef­flu­ents and re­store wood­lands and wet­lands as nat­u­ral fil­ters, so that very lit­tle treat­ment was needed when the wa­ter reached the city. Mean­while the up­lands were en­hanced for lo­cal peo­ple, and drew more ur­ban tourists.

The river catch­ment is just one nat­u­ral strand in the rich weave of nat­u­ral and so­cial con­nec­tions that un­der­pin Dublin city. The sea is an­other one. But the river catch­ment links the cen­tre to the whole pe­riph­ery of the city, and there is al­ready an in­sti­tu­tion equipped to en­hance and strengthen it. This is the Lo­cal Au­thor­i­ties Wa­ter and Com­mu­ni­ties Of­fice, set up un­der the far-see­ing EU Wa­ter Frame­work Di­rec­tive. But it needs a lot more fund­ing, and a lot more po­lit­i­cal im­pe­tus.

As cit­i­zens, maybe it is up to us to gather at the river, and see it gets the re­sources it needs.


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