Amy Clarke stops mid-jog to catch her breath, looking down at the still water in the Royal Canal.
She likes it because she doesn’t have to stop for pedestrian crossings, she said on Monday afternoon. “Also it’s nice to run alongside water. I’ve always liked that.”
It’s a bonus too that there are enough people around during the day to feel safe, she says. Like now, there are three people walking, and the occasional cyclist whirs past.
She’s running today a few hours before the sun sets. “I wouldn’t go when it’s dark. Just for safety,” she says. “Less visibility and stuff, and it’s harder to be aware of anything I guess.”
Poor infrastructure that puts people off from using greenways and cycleways – like the ones alongside the Royal Canal on the northside, and the Grand Canal on the southside – should be changed, say advocates for making canals safer.
That could start a self-reinforcing cycle of improvement: more people using the canal paths would make them safer, encouraging more people to use them, which would make them safer, they say.
Dublin City Council Press Office didn’t respond to queries sent Thursday asking what the council is doing to make existing and future greenways safe.
A More Welcoming Place
Public areas need passive surveillance from regular users to feel and be safer, says Anne Madden, spokesperson for Sustrans Northern Ireland, a charity focused on making it safer for people to walk and cycle.
Greenways inherently don’t have high surveillance, Madden says, because they’re designed to be away from people.
James Hanley, out walking his greyhound along the Royal Canal Cycleway on Monday, says the walkway has been a lovely addition. “ It’s a beautiful walkway, a great cycle track, well used, and practically it’s very useful.”
You can see pretty far ahead of you, he says. “And it’s busy, there’s always people walking along it. I generally don’t feel scared or intimidated, because I’m a man probably.”
Ailish Fay, out for a brisk walk in a long black puffer jacket, looks from the top of the walkway from North Strand Road, at the iron DART bridge that runs above the Royal Canal Cycleway.
“It’s a blind spot here. You can’t see what’s going on behind the bridge,” she says, so pedestrians might not feel safe walking down the hill.
The footpath should have been made lower so that there was no blind spot, she says. “If they did this much landscaping, which they did, what the hell?”
There’s also a muddy line where pedestrians have cut through the grass. “This bit here is really stupid for pedestrians. We’ve made our own muck path there.”
Madden says public areas get more use, and therefore more passive surveillance, when they are well-cared for, and clear of hidden areas which could make people uneasy.
“It’s not about cutting back all the trees, but at least maintaining the vegetation so you’ve got a clear, wide enough path that is visible,” she says.
A Place to Rest
Benches are good as they encourage people to spend time in an area, and should be especially visible, says Madden.
Green Party Councillor Janet Horner had asked for benches along the Royal Canal in North Wall in April 2021, for people like her mother who need to take breaks while walking. The council said they weren’t planning to put in seating.
“The message is going out that the greenway is not an amenity for people like her. It is for the fit and able-bodied only,” she says.
Dublin City Council did not respond to queries sent Monday asking whether it had received requests for benches, or whether it had plans to put any in.
Waterways Ireland, which also manages the canalside, did not respond to the same queries.
Noel Smith, a “detached” youth worker for SWAN Youth Service, said he had helped some local young people ask the council for a bench there, too. “It didn’t happen, unfortunately.”
Benches would be great, he said, but “where there’s a crew hanging around there, it’s not going to be approachable to the older person”.
Said Carla Greene, another detached youth worker: “I think it would make it more approachable.”
Near the bench, there could be an emergency phone that would connect with help, she says. “Regarding safety, that’s understandable with what’s recently happened.”
On Wednesday 12 January, teacher Ashling Murphy was attacked and killed along the Grand Canal in Tullamore while she was out running.
Barriers to Entry
Lauren Tuite, a local environmental campaigner in Inchicore, says that greenways should be opened up to the areas they run past, and not walled off.
More entrances to them would make them busier, and also provide escape routes if people feel or are unsafe, Tuite says.
“If I feel like there’s someone coming towards me, you know, and I’m feeling that kind of stranger danger, I can’t easily get off the canal,” she says.
Such as on the path next to the Grand Canal Cycleway alongside Bernard Curtis House, a complex in Bluebell just west of the bridge at Blackhorse.
“If there wasn’t a fence along there it would be easy for me to, you know, walk or cycle off the greenway into a more populated area,” she says.
Or alongside the Grand Canal as it passes Goldenbridge Industrial Estate. “There’s a big high wall,” she says. “They probably never conceived that there would be creches and churches and pizza restaurants in there”, in the industrial estate.
Without a barrier, residents living close to the canal path could access it more easily too, she says. But “they’re totally blocked off from each other”.
Clarke, on the stretch of the Royal Canal Cycleway from North Strand Road to Sheriff Street, says she hadn’t noticed that there aren’t any other exits, except at either end.
“I guess that’s pretty bad that you can only go one way or the other way. I never really thought about that. I suppose, it’s not great,” she says.
Some residents on parallel streets had worried that a path running next to their homes would bring an increase in crime, so they asked for barriers and boundary walls blocking it off.
Con Smith, a resident of Ferrymans Crossing, an estate next to the Royal Canal Cycleway, looks up at the tall steel barriers and says he has mixed feelings about them.
Once, through the bars, he saw someone fall off a bike. “I couldn’t get to her, so I had to go in and get the first-aid kit, and I had to hand it through,” he says.
But he’s also seen fights happen on the other side of the barrier. “They had to get an ambulance for them.”
It’s tricky, he says, to keep it safe. The conversations turns to the murder of Ashling Murphy. “If that happened out there, we wouldn’t be able to run out,” he says.
Tuite, the environmental campaigner in Inchicore, says barriers along the Grand Canal could be removed for a trial period, to see how the residents find it.
“What if the council trialled removing that fence for six months or a year and then compared the data?” she says. “Do we see an increase in anti-social behaviour when that’s removed? And actually have some real data rather than relying on anecdotal evidence.”
Areas along the canal have changed a lot, she says. “They’re more populated now. And there would be more people using the canal.”
Joan O’Connell, a committee member of Dublin Monthly Cycles, a group promoting safety for women cyclists, says there should be better lighting too along some canalside ways.
“People end up maybe missing out on a very pleasant and useful amenity in the night or the evening time,” she says. “It just means you’re cut off from a certain area. It’s only for men to use, if they feel safe enough to.”
Says Tuite: “I certainly don’t use it [the path next to the Grand Canal in Inchicore] after dark so I don’t know what the lighting is like on various parts.”
Hanley, walking with his greyhound next to the Royal Canal, says he has been on that path after dark, and he hasn’t been scared. “Probably because I’m a man,” he says.
Madden, of the charity Sustrans, says that in Belfast, locals wanted lighting on a greenway, but there were concerns about it affecting wildlife.
As a compromise, they settled on lighting until midnight, she says. “At least it gives people that window in the evening to get home.”
In Dublin, councillors on the women’s committee are asking for better lighting to improve safety in dark areas of the city.
In a motion to the South Central Area Committee on 20 January, councillors asked that temporary lighting be installed along the Grand Canal path from Suir Road to Blackhorse.
“We’ve heard from quite a number of residents to better light the canal at this location,” said Tina MacVeigh, a People Before Profit councillor, at the meeting.
“Given, you know, recent tragic events in relation to violence towards women, I think it’s particularly important that we do our very best to make sure that all public pathways are safe,” she said.
Derek Kelly, a council director of services for the South Central Area, said that there aren’t any electrical supplies nearby.
“Temporary lighting I assume would cost as much as permanent lighting, when you, when you get down to brass tacks on it,” he said. “It could be hundreds of thousands to lay ducting, and connect into a nearby power supply.”
MacVeigh says she remembers that the building for the National Children’s Hospital had used temporary spotlights.
“We’re not necessarily proposing that you install the whole works, you know that the poles and everything but just anything at all to provide additional lighting,” she says.
Máire Devine, a Sinn Féin councillor, suggested putting up Christmas lights. “It doesn’t have to be like, state of the art,” she says.
Madden says that if women were actively consulted on infrastructure, there could be more intention for safety in the design.
“Most design and infrastructure engineers are male, it’s a male-dominated world still, and that then leads to not considering all the factors,” she says.