"Our events are separate from institutions - they are an independent space."
Demand for space is mounting in Dublin. At the same time, many buildings are standing vacant throughout the city. Clearly, there is a gap somewhere – and it is this gap that Connect the Dots aims to bridge. The initiators, Naomi and Marisa, tell me about the problem of vacant space in Dublin, and how making connections can help.
“Connect the Dots aims to get different stakeholders together to talk about the use of vacant space in the city,” Marisa explains. She and Naomi gather these stakeholders by organising events, usually dinners. “We have students, artists, squatters, but also councillors, politicians, architects, city planners. We try to get every angle on the issue.” As the participants exchange views and knowledge, more insight into the issue of vacant space is created. At the same time collaborations are being started that help people to make better use of space.
At this point, in December 2015, Connect the Dots has been active for a year and has held six events. The setting varies from potlucks to fancy dinners. “A squatter might feel more comfortable at a potluck, whereas a city councillor might go to a different event more easily. That is why we do multiple events: this way we are able to keep gathering the right crowd of people.” Connect the Dots has now grown to a network of over 250 stakeholders. “We started off with inviting people: we had done a lot of research beforehand so we already knew some stakeholders in this field. We then asked them to invite others, and it has grown from there.”
During the events, each table has a facilitator to guide the conversation, while note takers record the information that comes out of this. “We are focusing both on accessing vacant space, and once you are in it, to maintain it. People who want to access space need information about where spaces are and how to go through all the regulations. Once you are in a space, it is about finance, finding people to help you, and sharing tools and knowledge. We are trying to create a support network that will provide people with information on all those things naturally.” Marisa and Naomi pay a lot of attention to how the events are arranged. “We try to make people feel at ease, and create a safe space for sharing information. For instance, squatters are coming even if a city councillor is there who might think what they are doing is illegal. But our events are separate from institutions, they are an independent space.”
The issue: vacant space
So how big is this problem of vacant space in Dublin? “It is quite big. There are pockets where it is more concentrated, but you will see it absolutely everywhere. Even many used buildings have their upper floors empty.” At the same time there are increasing numbers of people in need for space. The numbers of homeless have been increasing fast over the past two years and the shortage in housing supply is causing a surge in rents. “We have a homelessness crisis, a housing crisis, artists are complaining they don’t have studio spaces. It is frustrating that it could fill so many needs.”
“One problem is that we often don’t really know who owns a space,” Marisa says. Some vacant buildings in the city are in the hands of Dublin city council or NAMA, others are owned by different developers and landlords. There are many different reasons why such spaces can remain unused. Sometimes new building regulations are the problem. “Changed rules on fire safety made a lot of buildings not usable unless the owners paid to fix the problems. But that is a large extra cost.” The ‘commercial rates’ also add to the problem. You pay these rates to the city council for using a non-domestic space. “We have seen a lot of the more alternative spaces in the city being closed in the last year or two because they were not able to pay the rates, or because the city council did not help them to keep their space.” Instead of supporting alternative spaces, the city council is almost panicking to recover from the economic crisis and sell spaces off to developers by any means, without much overall vision. Any real system to deal with vacant space is lacking as well. “Groups who want to do something in a space will be shunted around the council, being told to talk to this person, go to that department. That is no system, it is just very frustrating.”
“We have a homelessness crisis, a housing crisis, artists are complaining they don’t have studio spaces. It is frustrating that it could fill so many needs.”
Funding and organising
Marisa and Naomi set up Connect the Dots as part of their master’s programmes. They are not funded or directly assisted by the city council. “But we had the right amount of buy-in from the college, and that helped a lot. We also got some funding from the EU TURAS programme and even from donations. However, so far we are relying on being lucky with a little bit of money here and there. Now we would like to have a few more stable funding sources. We need to set ourselves up properly, as a social enterprise or a non-profit enterprise. That way we could become a more official entity that can make more impact, hopefully.”
Connect the Dots is not only linking up other people, but it also collaborates itself with many people and organisations. Marisa and Naomi have connections with, among others, the EU TURAS programme, ChangeX and the Goethe institute. They are usually not involved directly in the initiatives that are part of their network, but the boundaries are not sharp. “Some people from our network have helped us plan our events. We call it a collaborative network: many people help each other in their initiatives and we will help with some of them too.”
As Connect the Dots approaches its one-year anniversary, positive results are already becoming visible. “The core bit is the support network that is already building up. For example, a guy who works for a men shed became the technical manager of someone who runs an art space – there have been many connections like that.” Just as important are the intangible connections. “People really learn and change their perspectives. Someone told us he used to think of squatting as purely illegal and bad, but now he realised maybe it is good in tandem with more legal things. Similarly, sometimes squatters are surprised that there are people in the council that are just normal, nice people.”
A second outcome is all the information Connect the Dots has collected at this point, from small tips to broader ideas about solutions. “One thing we want to do is to create a toolkit out of that. At the events people talk about tips and tricks: they might know some city councillor who is really helpful, they might know some rule, or know that it is easier to do it at some place versus somewhere else. We want to try to get those little things together in a toolkit that everyone can access.”
So far people share a lot of information at the events, but there is a hesitance of some people to share and collaborate. “It can be valuable for some people, especially older people, to keep knowledge to themselves, out of competitiveness or something else. Maybe our job at the moment is trying to convince people that everyone benefits more when you share information.” The people at the Connect the Dots events already seem to become more open to collaboration. “When we read the twitter posts after our last event, and we did interviews with people who had been there, we found they really had a reenergised, urgent feeling about the issue. That may help people to work together more.”
There are more barriers to face. One obstacle is getting those people at the events who could actually make things happen. “It is still a challenge to get people who own spaces at our dinners, as well as people with a more commercial focus. We have less of the people with more money and power.” City councillors do come to the events, but the ones who come are not always the ones with the power to change things. “We are now trying to start working more directly with people from the city council, to make more impact, hopefully.”
“Maybe our job at the moment is to convince people that everyone benefits more when you share information.”
Bottom-up initiatives in Dublin
Grassroots movements in Dublin were growing fast a few years ago. However, this growth has slowed down lately. “It was easiest right after the economic crash, because it was a bit more flexible, there were more spaces that were a bit cheaper to get into. Now, with the economy going up, people realise that they can actually get ‘real’, commercial people to come in. Many alternative places have closed. There are probably still a lot of grassroots movements out there, but they are often trying to do it without a space, or moving around spaces rather than having their own.”
Dublin City Council provides some support for grassroots initiatives, but helps mostly the projects that have lasted for a while already. “There is a strong risk aversion: they will take ones that are already proven to be more successful. So if you can show your initiative is a worthwhile, completely packaged idea, they will be more able to absorb it.” Getting to know people can also be a problem for initiatives searching for support. “It is all quite close in Dublin. Everyone knows everyone, and some groups can be more ‘favourites’ than others. That is why we help this networking happen more directly at our events.”
Sustainability is part of Dublin’s bottom-up movement, but not all initiatives that come to Connect the Dots care about it in the same way. Ideas about sustainability are thriving especially in the squatting community. For instance, they go dumpster diving and try to use alternative sources of energy. But sustainability can also be about coming up with alternative economic models. Sharing, for instance, not only knowledge but also tools and skills, is already happening in the Connect the Dots network. “For example, we helped out at ChangeX and then they helped us with business advice. We could offer the plates and cutlery for our dinners to other people as well. A sharing network can help people to be in a space and run events, even when they have little funding.”
Marisa and Naomi hope the value of bottom-up initiatives will become more appreciated. “It would be interesting to see what would happen if we all went on strike, what the city council would do when all these free services would no longer be provided for. Maybe then they would see the value of it.”