Tuesday 21 November 2017

Ghost-estate busters

Half-empty developments could be adapted for paintball, disaster training and skateboarding, one architect says

TARGET PRACTICE: Unoccupied developments could be used as soldier training courses similar to this US one, which comes complete with pop-up insurgents
TARGET PRACTICE: Unoccupied developments could be used as soldier training courses similar to this US one, which comes complete with pop-up insurgents

NEW business opportunities in urban playgrounds, paintball courses, peacekeeping and disaster training schemes and TV and film production bases could spring up from a small percentage of the nation's 2,800 ghost estates, a Dublin architect has suggested.

The ideas are proposed in an entry for the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland's (RIAI) 3Twenty10 research competition, which has sought the profession's ideas for helping the country's economic recovery.

Two-thirds of the 120,000 houses on ghost estates are occupied, according to recent figures released by the Department of the Environment. Scattered among the least occupied estates are about 10,000 shells of houses.

According to figures released to the Sunday Independent -- and roughly tallying with 12 possible sites identified in the competition entry -- some of those houses, in counties Kilkenny, Leitrim, Galway, Cork, Kerry, Cavan, Laois, Louth and Longford, are on estates that are potentially adaptable for other uses.

The first scenario would see a national urban paintball league established, taking its cue from a trend that has emerged in the US and creating an arena for an activity that is already popular in forests around the country.

"Paintball has become a professional game as well as providing outlets for leisure and executive training," the architect, who cannot be named before the winners are chosen on 15 November, said.

Further uses might be as skateboard or BMX parks, or as locations for parcour, the urban freerunning activity where participants jump on and off of buildings, rooftops and other obstacles -- something that might be a local authority health and safety officer's worst nightmare.

Ghost estates might also make ideal locations for film and TV backlots, similar to the Carrigstown one used as the setting for RTE's Fair City, as well as sound stages, similar to the famous one at Ardmore Studios in Co Wicklow.

"In the US, there are semi-permanent backlots that are frequently made to look like New York, Chicago and other cities. As long as basic infrastructure, roadways and perhaps a small number of buildings or shells of houses are there, facades can be put up and used in TV and films.

"The expanding requirements for media content will demand more environments where film, TV and video productions can be made," the architect claimed.

A spokeswoman for the Irish Film Board added: "Empty warehouses have recently been used as filming locations in Neverland, The Clinic and Leap Year. Our location managers welcome suggestions of any other types of properties that might make suitable locations and that can be included in our extensive online location database."

Anything that can be simulated for cinema can also be simulated for disaster training programmes, and this might be another use for empty housing estates.

"Instead of having to build them from scratch, the basic infrastructure could be adapted to simulate various urban environments, perhaps with particular thematic disasters in different locations," the architect said.

Provided the estates are robust enough, police, soldiers or those preparing for international peacekeeping work could also be trained there.

As the Department of the Environment works to convene a taskforce to look at the many issues related to ghost estates, including planning, health and safety, social housing needs and legal and regulatory matters, it remains to be seen how practical any of the ideas might be.

"I welcome the ideas because they add to the debate and are better than seeing ghost estates as a problem all the time," said Professor Rob Kitchin at NUI Maynooth's National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis.

"In reality, however, only a small percentage of ghost estates have no residents at all. For certain uses that have been mentioned, you'd almost need an estate in the middle of fields, with nothing else around it.

"Our priorities should be social housing, making Nama work and creating neighbourly communities.

"We should ask people living on partially occupied ghost estates what they want. Instead of bulldozing half-built houses, we should salvage and recycle valuable materials.

"Demolition should be the last option," he concluded.

Sunday Independent

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