Community Development in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County, Ireland (Case study)

Community Development in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County, Ireland

1. Introduction

This study visit is based on the study visit to Dun Laoghaire Rathdown (DLR) which took place on 14th and 16th march 2012. The main topic of this study visit was community development and SURE delegates explored issues around the institutional structures through which community development is supported and the role of third sector organisations in the co-ordination and support of community led initiatives.

2. Concepts of community, social exclusion and capacity building

In this section a brief overview of key definitions of ‘community’ leads into a discussion about how social exclusion, social capital, capacity building and governance are related.

Ideas of Community

The term ‘community’ is used by people in different ways. When we talk about ‘a community’ we often refer to a group of people who have something in common, for example a place of residence, a faith or a particular economic status. The term community also refers to a value, usually an ideal type of a community which is characterised by close social ties, solidarity, participation and coherence. There is a third perspective on ‘community’ which is that of an actor or agent who intends to maintain or change its own circumstances.

Although members of a community share some common characteristics, such as age, ethnic
origin, or place of residence, this does not mean that they identify themselves as a community. For people to identify themselves as a community requires that they have common interests which might include the following:
• Common cultural values or traditions members of a community want to uphold;
• Social relationships such as family, friends and neighbours who provide support for each other;
• Economic interests such as home ownership, business ownership or other commercial interests;
• Common experiences of power or oppression and the desire to maintain or change the status quo. For example political elites, refugees or the unemployed.

Ideas of community which are based on having something in common as well as a shared interest are underpinned by principles of networks, trust and reciprocity. Members of such communities share a belief that their community consists of ‘people like us’, that there is a consensus on what the community wants, which in turn generates a sense of trust and safety where members of a community know what to expect of each other. Communities that are based on such principles are often described as ‘sustainable communities’.

Networks are as important a way of organising community actions as organisations, but networks depend on trust and reciprocity rather than hierarchies. With regards to community development, networks play a major role, both in terms of connections between individuals and also between organisations. In the absence of hierarchical relationships the coordination of networks relies on co-operation, mutual support and trust. Hence effective community development must apply the same principles to establish collaborative working relationships between citizens and public agencies.

Social Exclusion

The ideal type community tends to be seen as an inclusive community – a group or a place where all members of the community are valued and supported. One of the core problems that urban regeneration initiatives deal with is the opposite, social exclusion. Social exclusion is almost synonymous with the ‘loss of community’. In such situations citizens face a breakdown of moral cohesion and responsibility, often associated with a breakdown of political legitimacy and increased uncertainty.

Social exclusion is linked to poverty, ill health, disadvantage, decline, deprivation and inequality. The term social exclusion brings together issues around low standards of living with a lack of opportunity to create a life that is socially and economically inclusive. Social exclusion also brings into focus groups who share similar characteristics which in turn might show them as being different or ‘separate’ from the mainstream of society. This finds its spatial expression in the term ‘deprived neighbourhoods’. Deprived neighbourhoods are not seen as sustainable and in need of intervention from the public or the private sector to create an inclusive and sustainable socio-economic environment.

Social Capital

One way of thinking about social inclusion or exclusion is ‘social capital’. Broadly speaking, social capital comes in two forms: Bonding and bridging capital. How well we know people in our social circles and how close our relationships with them are affects the range of opportunities we have and also the nature of the communities we live in. Communities with strong social relationships, high levels of trust and shared identity tend to be very supportive of their members. Members of such communities have high levels of ‘bonding capital’, but the flipside is that they are rather inward looking, not admitting new members easily and having few links to groups outside their immediate membership.

Individuals with a large number of informal links to different groups might receive less support when needed, but they are more likely to create opportunities for personal development and economic progression. These weak links are called ‘bridging capital’. Research shows that residents who live in deprived neighbourhoods have high levels of
‘bonding capital’ and low levels of ‘bridging capital’, which explains in part why deprived neighbourhoods are often experienced as being ‘isolated’ from their surrounding communities. In their most extreme, such communities are perceived as ghettos. Ghettos are places where people who do not live there are afraid to go into, and those who live there are afraid to leave, even for short periods of time.

Capacity Building

Justifications for interventions in deprived neighbourhoods are often based on the assumption that there are deficiencies in these communities. This assumption is the root cause of many disagreements about how neighbourhoods and the people living within them should be ‘regenerated’.

One widely accepted argument among regeneration practitioners is that the capacity of the community needs to be increased so that local people are able to develop commonly shared interests and values, and find ways to reduce exclusion and increase their links to social and economic networks. The idea behind capacity building is that communities are enabled to help themselves. Typical capacity building interventions include funding for the refurbishment of buildings, training of volunteers or staff to provide particular services or to make applications for funding from regeneration programmes. This ‘capacity building’ can be focused on individuals or organisations, often interventions try to do both. For example, residents might be supported to join the labour market and this might be done through training schemes provided by voluntary organisations. The organisations in turn then benefit from providing such training programmes, for example by earning income, developing the sills of their staff or improving their project management systems.

Capacity building is an important part of community development, but they are not the same. This is because organisations that have improved their capacity to pursue particular interests might have very different ideas about what their ‘community’ should be like. Hence capacity building often results in an accentuation of differences of values, norms and expectations within deprived communities, thus supporting tendencies of fragmentation and isolation. Community development, on the other hand, has a higher goal. It aims to enable local people to accept differences and to benefit from them. As we have seen, a wide range of links to different groups within a diverse community improves the ‘bridging social capital’ which is so important when we try to reduce social exclusion. Achieving this is of cause difficult, and a key challenge for regeneration practitioners is to encourage many and often contrasting voices and interest, while at the same time directing their energy towards the common goal of creating a sustainable community.


Capacity building is also about enabling communities to participate in the decision making processes associated with the regeneration of their neighbourhoods. Participation in governance is about taking responsibility, at least in part, for what happens in a neighbourhood and the community that lives there. Without the active engagement of citizens in the governance of their neighbourhood regeneration interventions are unlikely to lead to sustainable improvements.

Regeneration programmes have over the past 30 years developed ever more sophisticated structures to engage local communities, with mixed results. The complexity of reconciling the often conflicting interests of governmental agencies which have different thematic, financial and spatial interest (neighbourhood, district, town, sub-region, region and national level) with the interests and needs of local communities requires new forms of governance.

Network based governance, where public agencies share responsibility with residents for service provision and strategy development, has had its origins in the regeneration processes of deprived neighbourhoods and is being expanded as the complexity associated with the provision of public services grows. However, in terms of community development, one of the central problems is that governance structures established for the regeneration of deprived neighbourhoods satisfy the needs of public agencies but often present insurmountable barriers for the people who live in these communities to engage with the governance process.

3. The target area in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown

Dún Laoghaire has an attractive seaside location in Dublin Bay and many residential areas were ‘gentrified’ during the property boom. In areas where the municipality provides housing to low income families the situation is very different, however. Unemployment is high, educational achievement is low, crime, drug taking and vandalism are also significant problems. In addition, many families are caught in a ‘benefit trap’ which makes it more attractive to remain unemployed than to enter the labour market on low pay. This results in apathy and a reluctance to engage in entrepreneurial or economic activity.

The SURE target area has been subject to a wide range of socio-economic interventions over the past twenty years. A defining feature of the approach taken by the municipality towards regeneration interventions over the years has been to encourage voluntary organisations to take a leading role in the regeneration process. There are numerous voluntary organisations active in the target area and the municipality, together with central government, have been funding a community development officer for several years. This officer works for the national RAPID programme, which is designed to facilitate community development in deprived areas, and provides a link between public agencies and the local community.

3.1 Key Community Development Projects

Delegates valued the combination of having the institutional context explained in a way which helped them understand the nature of the projects that were visited. The site visits allowed delegates to explore project design, funding and operation as well as the support processes that need to be in place to enable local people to run complex initiatives. Of particular interest to delegates were the following community development initiatives:

Shanganagh Community Garden Project

The Shanganagh Community Garden came about as a result of the development work done by Dave Lawless. Dave works for the government funded RAPID programme , which provides community development staff and project funding for the most deprived neighbourhoods in Ireland. He consulted local residents on whether they would have an interest in developing a community garden on a piece of waste ground adjoining their properties. This waste ground had been the source of endless problems with young people who used it to ride and then burn cars, it was an illegal dumping ground and became the meeting place for people who caused a lot of problems in the neighbourhood. The municipality got the soil ready for planting and provided the basic infrastructure for an allotment, such as fencing and footpaths.

Response has been very good, with demand now outstripping available plots. Growers pay for all the equipment and materials needed to cultivate their plot and grow their produce. Together they have transformed the wasteland into an oasis where fruit and vegetables are grown and where important social contacts thrive. Growers can rent the plot for one year at a time and pay a very small fee to cover costs associated with the site. It is now expected that the garden will be extended to give more residents the opportunity to grow their own produce and, equally important, connect with a rapidly growing social network.

Holly House and Digital Media Project

Holly House is one of a number of community centres which is part staffed by paid employees and part run by volunteers. The building was converted from a family home which was not very popular among residents and provides after school clubs for children, meeting place for clubs run by local residents and also a media suite. This media suite was sponsored by an electronics company to support local young people in developing and applying their IT skills. The project included a member of staff and cutting edge media equipment to and was very popular among local youngsters. Now that the sponsorship programme has come to an end the people working in Holly House are looking for source of funding to employ again a supervisor who would work with young people on media projects.

Shanganagh Park House

Shanganagh Park House is a local community centre, which provides space for several projects and services. The municipality owns the building and contributes a small amount each year towards its running costs, but all of the 12 or staff who work at the community centre are funded through charges made for the use of the premises. However, most of the people who work at Shanganagh Park House are volunteers. They come to help with the running of crèches for small children, support women who suffer from abuse, or provide sports and educational activities for young people.

The management committee of Shanganagh Park House consists of representatives from the non-governmental organisations, which are using the building, local politicians as well as officers from the municipality. They share responsibility for the management of the facility, in particular making sure that sufficient income is generated without curtailing the range of services local people want to see at Shanganagh Park House.

Community Magazine

A number of residents associations from neighbourhoods in the RAPID area have been publishing a community magazine for several years. It is published once a year in high quality colour print and issued to every household in the three neighbourhoods. Each community group funds the pages that deal with their news stories, which can cost several hundred Euros. While it can be difficult to raise the money, each neighbourhood wants to have their news published and goes to great lengths to raise the necessary funding through events, sale of goods, obtaining donations and selling advertising space to local businesses. Governmental agencies are an important source of income because the use the newsletter to advertise their local services and inform citizens of important changes in the municipality.

The Police Force as a Partner in Regeneration Partnerships

Most SURE partners had not considered inviting a member of the local police force to join their Local Support Group until they visited Dún Laoghaire. Having the police at the partnership table might imply that law enforcement is a key priority for the local area, which is often not the case. A growing number of countries now recognise the benefits of engaging the police force in problem analysis and strategy development. This helps crime reduction, particularly through crime prevention actions, which is preferable to the enforcement actions police forces are primarily engaged in. Working with the police also helps partnerships identify the root causes of crime and social disorder, such as poverty and exclusion. This should be starting point for thinking about ways in which these problems can be resolved.

4. Analysis during the study visit

During the workshop in which SURE partners reflected on the projects they had see there was general agreement that these interventions represented effective practice. There was a recognition that most SURE partners did not have the deep knowledge and institutional capacity needed to support community development initiatives such as those facilitated through the RAPID Programme in DLR. It was also accepted that the communities in the SURE target area and beyond had been engaged in community development initiatives over several generations. Hence there was a deep capacity structure within the community which allowed residents to engage with public agencies with relative ease in order to develop joint initiatives that tackle complex social and economic problems. On the other hand, public agencies had also developed their capacity to deal with needs, ideas and opportunities put forward by their citizens over time.

Nevertheless, delegates were enthusiastic about the projects they had seen and identified a wide range of initiatives they were intending to explore for implementation in their own cities. Appendix I contains a city specific table, but below we list the key interventions which were identified by a number of SURE participants as being helpful in regenerating deprived neighbourhoods in their home towns:
• Investing in mechanism that co-ordinate the efforts of community organisations
• Provide funding for networks or consortia of community organisations
• Make premises available to community groups to do their work
• Include the police force in regeneration partnerships
• Encourage volunteering
• Encourage community gardens
• Support community newsletters and bring together a number of smaller newsletters into one larger newsletter

Overall community development interventions were considered to be of central importance to all Local Action Plans of SURE partners, and the study visit confirmed as well as encouraged partners to find ways of giving community development a higher priority in their home towns and cities.

5. Key Learning Points

The achievements of the municipality in Dún Laoghaire are good reminder that community engagement cannot be fostered in isolation from other government initiatives. DLR is supported by a national government initiative which invests over the long term in community development initiatives. The importance that the Irish government attaches to community development is indicated by the fact that despite the profound economic problems and unprecedented budgetary austerity Ireland currently encounters, only limited cuts were made to the budgets which support community development work. Municipalities in other countries which might be in the early stages of supporting community development projects should therefore bear in mind that projects like Shanganagh Park House take years, even decades to reach a point where local residents have the organisational and technical capacity to run such projects themselves. While the principles of community development include giving residents real power to change their neighbourhoods, residents must not be over-burdened. Long term and low key investment and capacity building are the pre-requisite for successful community led projects such as the ones seen in Dún Laoghaire.

The second learning point is that municipalities need to do the things local communities can only do with great difficulty. The community garden is such an example. It was relatively easy and inexpensive for the municipality to clear and secure the site but this provided the essential pre-conditions which encouraged and enabled residents to take control of the development of the site. Knowing where to start and when to stop with interventions comes with experience. Hence municipalities in the early stages of experimenting with different community development projects would be well advised to listen carefully to their residents before making decisions on how the long terms tasks of developing local capacity should be shared between them.

Reference list: Hans Schlappa. 2012. Retrieved from

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