Dr. Frank O’Connor & Jude Sherry, anois agency
When Frank and Jude moved back to Ireland in 2018 after decades living abroad, they were shocked to see the scale of the housing and homelessness crisis. They also found that dereliction had been normalised to epidemic levels, resulting in significant loss to local communities, heritage and business. While the economic crash of 2007 took its toll it is worth nothing that dereliction has actually been a problem in Ireland since the foundation of the state and has since then become entrenched as an everyday part of Irish society.
Although not originally from Cork, Frank and Jude had fallen in love with the distinctive character of the city and its community. So when they decided to return to Ireland, it was their first port of call. Frank and Jude share a deep personal and professional interest in urban environments and are specialists in sustainable design, with experience in research, policy development and industry consultancy. Over their careers they have evolved new ways of building urban communities by supporting foundational economies and enterprises that offer needs-based, local, and responsible product and services, and have a particular interest in transforming under-utilised urban resources.
Prior to their arrival in Cork they had been testing empathic research and development methods where they immerse themselves for extended periods in urban communities and through various forms of dialogue explore creative solutions to challenges being experienced, e.g. they had undertaken a Maker Walk concept to understand city manufacturing and a residency in a community to delve into the social contract in the context of community housing. They decided that they should treat their new home city as an immersive experience and set about documenting and recording their daily city experiences by foot, walking everywhere they could again and again, making notes, taking photos, videos, and chatting to people. They combined this with desk-based research and attending events to deep dive into living in Cork city centre.
What became immediately apparent was the overall neglect of the city, demonstrated through a lack of maintenance for properties regardless of being publicly or privately owned. This was reinforced by an unwillingness by the local authorities to impose the Derelict Sites Act levies. The city was dominated by poor public realm, decaying heritage, widespread vacancy and dereliction. Incidents of crumbling buildings and barricaded streets were common. While Frank and Jude identified and shared 450 derelict properties all within 2km radius of the city centre this was just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more derelict properties and aside from their self-funded research there is no official local or national data on vacant (which is the gateway to dereliction) and derelict buildings. Recent estimates suggest there could be up to 200k vacant and derelict homes in Ireland. Remember this is in the midst of a severe national housing crisis leading to many people being left without a home, in some cases left to die on the streets.
Frank and Jude found it virtually impossible to walk anywhere near the city centre without becoming depressed and even avoided it for a while for their own mental health. Their documentation paints a stark picture of a city in crisis; a derelict city, where the most vulnerable had been abandoned in the name of growth and progress. But who really benefits from this purported growth?
Through protest, practice, and policy, they set out to shine a light on dereliction, challenge its normalisation and show what alternatives are possible. And to do so in a respectful yet revolutionary way, focusing on systems change, with integrity, transparency, empathy and inclusiveness at the core of their message. Their citizen-led approach started as a single tweet and quickly became a national movement called #DerelictIreland.
In the summer of 2020, Frank and Jude launched their campaign, sharing one derelict building on twitter every day for a full year. Although restricted to a 2km radius from Cork city centre based on covid regulations and the 15-minute city concept, they nonetheless shared nearly 450 derelict properties, a clear indication of the extent of the problem in Cork city centre. The goal was to encourage others to open their eyes, look around, appreciate what they have and call out the waste, decay and dereliction. They combined the daily dereliction images with videos, stories, humour, facts and introduced a ‘walk and talk’ technique to explore what dereliction means by taking interested parties on a tour of the city.
However, images alone are not enough to rupture the commonly held myths of dereliction, so Jude analysed and synthesised publicly available data for 340 derelict properties (from the 450) culminating in the ‘This is Derelict Ireland’ report. This is the first ever in-depth, data driven study of dereliction in the country. Crucially the study debunked the 10 common myths of dereliction.
The most destructive myth is that the constitution protects private property above all else, when it clearly states in Article 43.2., that private property rights ought to be regulated by principles of social justice and common good. The state is not upholding their side of the foundational social contract by allowing extreme levels of vacancy and dereliction to persist. This is a dereliction of duty. Given the deadly consequences this should be viewed as a social crime. It begs the question why are some landowners allowed to leave homes empty and derelict indefinitely, with no repercussions?
After the release of the report a community formed across Ireland, with groups self-organising and campaigning for change, bound by an underlying belief that dereliction and vacancy can be turned into an opportunity to provide homes, places to play, create and work, and that heritage not only matters, but it is vital. #DerelictIreland emerged as a national movement for change.
Frank and Jude worked with Community Action Tenants Union (CATU) Cork to deliver the first cultural festival to end dereliction, with a guided tour of 70 derelict properties in the city centre, supported by poetry performances, talks, music sessions and more. The festival was a huge success and further galvanised the campaign. They then collaborated with CATU Ireland and Reclaim Our Spaces to run a similar festival in Dublin. Their work has gone on to spawn protest art in the form of other festivals, painting, music and more. There is now a recognition that dereliction is more than just the visual pollutant and waste of a building or site, it represents a systems failure that can be fixed.
Over the last six months dereliction in Ireland has finally become newsworthy, to the point where it’s hard to get through a day without its negative impacts being raised in Irish media. This is a significant change from previous years. There’s even been coverage of #DerelictIreland as far afield as UK, Italy and France, a necessary contrast to the blue-sky imagery tourism Ireland usually promotes abroad. While it is also inspiring campaigns in other countries, e.g. Derelict Yorkshire. People are not only looking around and noticing the epidemic levels of dereliction across Ireland, but they are also realising that it can be ended with a change in mindset and collective action, combined with the right values of integrity, transparency and accountability. Coverage of the #DerelictIreland movement reached new heights in December 2021, when Frank and Jude addressed the Houses of the Oireachtas as well as featuring in the RTE Six One and RTE Nine O’Clock news.
Ending dereliction and bringing vacancy to acceptable levels is the key to transforming our towns and cities and providing homes, as well as places to play and create for everyone. Advocating for urban spaces to be co-designed with people and for people, with a focus of freely accessible social spaces, Frank and Jude demonstrated the potential dereliction presents, producing a proposal for Cork City Council that showcased the creative and beneficial transformations that could be applied to five council-owned sites.
Construction is already the most wasteful sector in Ireland, so they knew that bringing buildings back into use would be the best way to transition to a circular economy, where existing buildings are treated as valuable banks of materials, ensuring all materials are retained at their highest value, in their current structure, potentially saving millions of tonnes of embedded carbon. There is no doubt that there is an urgent need in Ireland to bring derelict buildings back into use.
What does our society stand for? Why are people dying on our streets for lack of an affordable and secure home, when there is an alternative. How can anyone justify this form of abuse? If Ireland is a caring society then one could argue that people wouldn’t want anyone to be without a home at any time of the year. If that is the case, it is time to stop accepting the unnecessary waste and neglect and agree on ending Derelict Ireland within 5 years. And then go and do it. There is no quick fix for all of this, but these challenges can be addressed through a custodianship-based approach. The first steps need to be to repair societal trust and start rebuilding the broken social contract through enforcing the law.
The current dereliction laws need to be implemented as well as introducing new measures such as vacancy tax, meanwhile use and compulsory sales. Other challenges to address include introducing effective incentives for bringing properties back into use, simplifying the cumbersome process of compulsory purchase, updating the lack of reliable data on so many aspects of our building stock, and developing the right skills to repair and refurbish existing buildings.
Frank and Jude’s approach from the outset has been about keeping things accessible and simple, with a focus on high quality communication, strong aesthetic visuals and consistent wording, as well as a willingness to step outside the crowd and provoke.
There is no doubt that shining a light on #DerelictIreland has challenged Irish society to rethink its relationship with resources, in particular property, in the context of imagining a functioning social contract. It has also woken people up to the realisation that this epidemic of vacancy and dereliction in Ireland is not normal, it is simply irresponsible waste, and a barrier to a better functioning society and economy. This is not the foundation of a healthy society or sustainable economy. In the words of economist David McWilliams this is simply “State sanctioned vandalism” and needs to end. Vacancy and dereliction should be turned into an opportunity to create a livable urban environment, embracing heritage and boosting our well-being, environment and local economies.
Will 2022 be the year that Ireland finally says goodbye to this damaging mindset that dereliction is normal and put steps in place to #DerelictIreland? Let’s hope so, and at a minimum the majority of people will realise that it doesn’t have to be this way. The waste and vandalism can end and can be replaced with homes, places to play and create. Frank and Jude are working on a number of concepts with a range of partners to bring #DerelictIreland to new audiences. They are also talking at a number of festivals in the coming months. Keep a close eye on the twitter accounts for Frank (@frank_oconnor) and Jude (@judesherry) and their agency @anoisagency as well as #DerelictIreland and #VacantIreland to find out what evolves. Frank and Jude invite everyone to get involved, by sharing messages on social media with the hash tags or simply using whatever means possible to call out this waste, neglect and vandalism. We can end #DerelictIreland. However we need the political and cultural will. Let’s do it together for benefit of wider society.
Dr Frank O’Connor and Jude Sherry are sustainable designers, activists and urban explorers. They are directors of the global agency anois, set up to create value through systems design for sustainability, circularity, responsibility, equality and social justice.
Combined they have over 50 years’ experience working on sustainability projects all over the world, with governments on policy, businesses on strategy and educational institutes on curriculum development.
They are both transdisciplinary, multi-award-winning, educated to doctorate and masters level respectively and are viewed as international leaders in their field.
For context Frank first called for a Circular Economy in Ireland in 1989 and Jude was recently awarded Irish Tatler Woman of the Year in Art & Design. They have published widely and are regular media contributors including newsprint, magazines, radio, TV and podcasts.