Offering People “Civic Dollars” to Get Outside and into Parks

On a cold afternoon last Thursday at St Patrick’s Park, Fiona Morris watched her sandy-coloured cockapoo compete with Alexia Nuessli’s Dalmatian over a red toy ball.

Walking their dogs brings Morris and Nuessli to various parks around the south-west of the city: the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, the War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge, and sometimes as far south as Eamonn Ceannt Park.

“This would be my local park,” says Morris though, of St Patrick’s Park, between the excited barks of the dogs.

Since Monday 29 November, spending time in St Patrick’s Park, along with four other parks in Dublin 8, could earn Morris or any other park-goers “civic dollars” that they can redeem at local businesses or donate to charities.

Civic dollars are the first major pilot by Smart D8, an initiative run by the council and its Smart City Unit, which aims to improve the health and well-being of people living in the postcode.

The idea is to improve people’s health by encouraging them to use parks, says Nicola Graham, Smart Dublin’s smart city operations manager.

“If you can improve people’s general health and well-being, they won’t maybe need to go to hospital,” says Graham.

Philip Lawton, assistant professor in global urbanism at Trinity College Dublin, says he questions whether “gamification”, the adding of game-like incentives into non-gaming environments, is the best way to attract more people to city parks.

“If you go to a public space and you get some form of reward, I think there’s something slightly amiss there,” he says.

Walk in the Park

Park-goers can earn civic dollars if they head to St Patrick’s Park, St Audoen’s Park, Weaver Park, Oscar Square in The Liberties and Grattan Park in Inchicore. According to Dublin City Council, these parks were chosen as they’ve all seen recent investment.

Those wanting to fill their civic wallets can download an app onto their phones, says Graham.

Once inside one of the five parks in Dublin 8, the park goer turns the app on and opts into the service, she says, which logs out automatically when they leave.

Every 30 minutes is worth one civic dollar, says Graham. “You can get a discount on a coffee or donate to a local community group that’s in the D8 area.”

Businesses taking part include Little Bird Café, Epic Ireland, Mobility Genie and The Bike Hub. Local community groups and charities including the Iveagh Trust, Focus Ireland and the Solas Project have also signed up.

From June until October this year, Belfast City Council trialled a similar “civic dollars” project.

“The council set us a target of 500 users and we had over 2,000 or even more than that,” says Stephen McPeake, CEO of Moai Digital, adding that the app registered more than 3,500 hours of activity in the parks.

Did that mean more people visited the parks?

“We didn’t have any baseline data of park numbers beforehand,” says McPeake, adding that they are currently writing up a report on the outcomes from the pilot along with results from a survey of participants.

In St Patrick’s Park, dog walker Fiona Morris likes the sound of the initiative, she says, and of local businesses and charities getting support.

“I’m here with the dogs anyway I may as well get paid for it,” says Morris.

At the Patrick Street entrance to St Stephen’s Park, David Byrne, enjoying a coffee with his friend Jamie Thomas, is enthused too, he says. “I think it will definitely increase numbers to the park.”

“If you’re sitting on the couch and think, Oh will I go to the park today? Maybe not. And then think, Oh there’s this Smart Dublin thing, maybe I would go,” he says.

Thomas likes the sound of the project, he says. But who is funding the rewards? he asks.

McPeake says it is a pay-it-forward system. “They’ve offered it out of their own cost,” he says, of participating businesses.

Charities can use the civic dollars donated to them to spend on services from participating businesses, including VAVA Influencers, Core Tech IT, Paul Saxon Consulting and Éire Graphic Design.

Improving People’s Health

Says Civic Dollars’ McPeake, of the Belfast trial: “One of the things we wanted was to get those that were inactive and try and get them out to the parks.”

“We don’t care if you walk, cycle, run or just go and sit on a park bench. It’s time-based as opposed to activity-based,” he said.

“We try not to discriminate against people who may have mobility or health issues,” he said. People are still getting to the park and getting exercise that way, he says.

The app does not capture whether people were previous regular users of the park, nor whether the app encouraged people to become new users of parks, says McPeake. That might come later with a questionnaire, he adds.

“We hope to discover that we incentivised those who were previously sedentary to be a bit more active,” says McPeake, on the Belfast pilot.

Said Graham: “It’s an indication of how the park is being used but again it’s not used to determine accurate numbers.”

The success of the project would be that people were using the app and that they were interested in it, says Graham.

Also, it will glean data for the council on how its parks are being used, she said. Individualised data is not being collected by the council, and people’s location data is geolocked meaning the GPS only records when the user is in the park, she said.

Making it a Game

Since the 1980s, says Lawton, the assistant professor, cities have placed a greater emphasis on attracting investment, what he terms “entrepreneurial urbanism”.

Examples he gives of this is the development of Dublin’s Docklands, and the Temple Bar area.

Gamification, he says, is an extension of this logic, albeit at a smaller scale.

“While the civic dollars might seem subtle, it is still based around a logic of competition whereby people earn something for engaging in an activity that should be about well-being, relaxation and enjoyment,” he says.

Michael Pidgeon, Green Party councillor for Dublin’s South West Inner City says that he has no issues with the product and that it could be a beneficial way for people to discover parks in their area.

“From a park’s point of view there’s a definite advantage to driving footfall,” he says, adding that well-trafficked parks can remove problems.

“Dublin 8 has had a longstanding issue with a lack of green space,” says Darragh Moriarty, Labour Party councillor for the same area.

“In fairness to Dublin City Council, they’ve recognised that and they’ve pushed for the development of Weaver Park,” he says, as well as the development of Bridgefoot Street Park.

Moriarty is also a fan of the initiative. “I think it’s an innovative way to get people to engage with green spaces,” he says.

In St Patrick’s Park, Nuessli, the other dog walker, says that facilities in Dublin’s parks could be improved especially for dog walkers.

“It’s so hard when it gets dark early and parks are closed at 5pm where you can walk the dog off the lead and it’s safe,” says Nuessli.

The recently refurbished St Audeon’s Park, which sits off High Street by a medieval parish church of the same name, was empty last Thursday apart from a couple of tourists peering over the grey stone walls.

There are no dog walkers and nobody is outside braving the cold for an early lunch.

That’s because it doesn’t feel safe there, says Paul Reilly, who was walking his terrier around Patrick’s Park. “I wouldn’t walk the dog down there.”

Says McPeake: “I suppose that’s what we want to do with the data.”

They can tell the council which parks aren’t being used, he says. “And hopefully the feedback will show why it can’t be used if they’re badly lit or they’re areas with antisocial behaviour.”

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Sean Finnan: Sean Finnan is a freelance journalist. You can reach him at [email protected]

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