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What a greenway needs

Joseph Kavanagh


Working Hard / Hardly Working

The demand for successful public spaces and amenities remains on the agenda as we continue to move forward post Covid-19. While the public finds ways to reclaim or improve civic spaces, the government is looking to construct new forms of them. Greenways form part of these planned public spaces, providing an area in which to connect to the natural landscape and maintain a link between our built and natural environments.

Vartry Resevoir - 1:25000 [1]

The materiality of the Vartry Greenway emphasises sustainability. The paths are non-intrusive to the landscape, made from reclaimed road tarmac. You can find the white and yellow paint from roads at your feet as you meander along the lake's edge

The government plans to put €60 million of taxpayers' money into Public Greenways for two reasons; firstly, to offer the public a physical amenity and secondly, as an attempt to increase green forms of transport. This €60 million forms part of the larger annual €360 million to be spent on so-called 'active travel'.

Greenways take on many shapes across Ireland and have proved to be successful in cities such as Cork and Waterford, as well as straddling the canals from Dublin to the midlands. They offer their communities spaces for cycling, walking and running. Promoting this 'active travel' helps to reduce emissions and encourages the public to connect with their natural environment.

However, greenways are more than just a route that brings the user from A to B. There are a host of ancillaries that are needed to accompany this public infrastructure for it to function. For the purpose of this article, two greenways nestled on different sides of the Wicklow Mountains are compared. To the east is the Greenway that circumnavigates the Vartry Reservoir and to the west, one which sits on the banks of what's known as the Blessington Lakes or Poulaphouca Reservoir. The Blessington Greenway is partially complete, with the remainder of the project under consideration by An Bord Pleanála. While the Vartry Greenway is not perfect, it demonstrates a successful greenway sitting on an important piece of infrastructure. Vartry and Poulaphouca between them supply nearly three-quarters of the greater Dublin Area's water supply. 

The Vartry Greenway was opened in 2018 and has proved a successful public amenity for the adjacent village of Roundwood and for visitors and tourists. The route is used for a variety of outdoor activities. It also provides a safe place for walkers and runners during the winter months as alternative unlit roads in rural Ireland prove dangerous for pedestrians. 

The materiality of the Vartry Greenway emphasises sustainability. The paths are non-intrusive in the landscape, made from reclaimed road tarmac. You can find the white and yellow paint from roads at your feet as you meander along the lake's edge. Any bridges or walkways that cross rivers, streams, or unstable ground are simple grated metal structures with rough concrete reinforcements, complementary against the rough and grey Wicklow granite blocks that finish the existing Victorian structures built with the reservoir nearly two-hundred years ago. 

The Vartry Greenway demonstrates how existing infrastructure can be reused or made to work harder for the public. The greenway at Vartry crosses over an existing earthen dam, as well as existing bridges that cross the reservoir. It is a clear example of maximising the use of the existing structure. 

A new path connects the village directly to the greenway. The village’s public toilets have been refurbished and are now offered to the users who avail of this public space. Public toilets in themselves are a rare find but essential when attached to such a large piece of public infrastructure. 

The Vartry Greenway is successful due to the following elements: it does not impede the high visual amenity of the landscape that it sets out to show; it connects back to an urban area and in turn offers the inhabitants and tourists an amenity; and finally, the urban area it connects to is not being placed under strain – there are sufficient public toilets, parking, and road infrastructure to cope with increased visitors to the area.

In contrast, the Blessington Greenway – which has a section running from the town of Blessington to Russborough House Estate already complete – lacks elements that would ensure its success. The rest of the project currently under consideration has been tarnished with issues due to a lack of public consultation, bypassing locals' concerns.

Poulaphouca Resevoir - 1:50000 [2]

The scale of the Blessington Greenway is far greater than Vartry, so it inadvertently attracts more issues with the higher number of users. The proposed pathway is over three metres in width and is finished in tarmac. The extent of the route and need to keep it relatively flat has led to an immense amount of 'rock armour' being placed around the shores of the lake for erosive protection. It proves extremely obstructive to the picturesque landscape the greenway is attempting to show off and connect to. As well, the size of this pathway requires the felling of thousands of trees, again damaging the landscape both ecologically and visually. 

The villages around the Blessington Lakes along the greenway are connected by a series of concrete bridges built in the 1930s. Instead of installing simple walkways as part of the new route, or upgrading these bridges, the department intends to trim the bridges down to a single lane and introduce traffic lights on either end. This will restrict farm machinery from using the bridges and further disperses the farming communities around the reservoir (who have been separated by the creation and flooding of the Reservoir for the benefit of Dublin residents since the 1940s). 

Possibly the most concerning issue with the department's plan is the lack of a single public toilet to accompany this massive piece of public infrastructure. The counter-argument put forward is that if they were to place public toilets so close to the edge of Ireland’s largest supply of drinking water, it would provide a serious public health issue. The department instead expects users of the public amenity to avail of toilets within private businesses in the villages around the lake. 

For a sense of scale, there is no secondary school in any of these villages, some of them have a pub and nothing else, and others are no more than a hamlet. The expectation that these tiny local businesses will be able to suddenly accommodate the significant expected influx of people that will come with this greenway is mistaken. In any case, if greenway users cannot avail of public sanitation (a human need, not a want) it could lead to people having to relieve themselves just off the greenway. In this way, the department’s concern for public health issues becomes a reality. 

When basic factors like sanitation, accessibility, and surface are taken into consideration greenways offer a simple yet vital piece of public infrastructure. Vartry Greenway strikes the balance between infrastructure, amenity, and protecting the very landscape it seeks to appreciate – all factors that require further consideration as we enter the final stages of the Blessington Greenway project. 

When basic factors like sanitation, accessibility, and surface are taken into consideration greenways offer a simple yet vital piece of public infrastructure.

Working Hard / Hardly Working is an article series designed to promote the use and organisation of public space. By presenting two examples - one which works well, and one which needs to work harder - it highlights the importance of clever design, and how considered decisions can make our shared spaces better. For all enquiries and potential contributors, please contact

Working Hard / Hardly Working is supported by the Arts Council through the Architecture Project Award Round 2 2022.


1. Varty Reservoir contour map - 1:25000 by Joseph Kavanagh

2. Poulaphouca Reservoir contour map - 1:50000 by Joseph Kavanagh


Joseph Kavanagh

Joseph Kavanagh is a M.Arch Graduate from UCD who is currently working for COADY Architects in Dublin. He is apart of their Healthcare and Education team working on large scale projects across the country.


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