The once-glorious municipal park languishes on death row

THREE scenes from municipal life, 1993 . . .

A sunny day in Ye Olde English Garden, Victoria Park, Hackney, east London. A gang of children clusters uncertainly round the sundial. 'It tells you the time when the sun's out,' hisses a girl. A boy wrenches at the bronze finger. No luck: it's already broken.

At the ornamental flower- beds, a gardener is bending and puffing. Ask the identity of a flower and watch his face fall. He's just a bowling-green keeper, he says.

Finally, the wildlife area. You can tell it's the wildlife area because of the litter, the sinister film on the water, the banks of coot-resistant concrete and the air of neglect. A few yards away, however, a patch of bone-dry, balding grass is receiving another trim.

Prospects for Victoria Park, according to Steve Driscoll, its manager, are darkening. His offices are in what used to be its lavatories. 'That shows what they think of us,' he says, not altogether joking.

But Victoria Park is lucky: it still has resident park-keepers and functioning toilets. Elsewhere, park-keepers have been abolished, loos closed, pavilions boarded up, flower-bed displays removed, grass left uncut. Nearly four out of five councils have slashed park spending or plan to do so. One in three expects job losses. Nurseries have been shut, skills are vanishing.

The municipal urban park was invented in Britain and copied throughout the world. Now it is at risk of extinction. It is 'under unprecedented threat' (the Open Spaces Society), 'in serious danger' (the Landscape Institute), facing 'death by stealth' (the GMB public-sector union). Manchester, which helped found the 19th century 'people's park', is removing shelters, lavatories, flowers, drinking fountains, seats.

Councils no longer have cash to spare and green space has been in the front line of cuts. But the park has also lost its purpose. What kind of place is it supposed to be?

The 1840s, when Victoria Park was opened, harboured no such doubts. Some 30,000 East Enders signed a petition to Queen Victoria requesting a space for the 'comfort and healthful recreation of all classes of the inhabitants'. When the bathing lakes opened, 25,000 were taking the plunge before 8am. In 1892, it became Britain's most visited park - 303,516 people turned up on Whit Monday.

To the early Victorians, parks were a novelty - the 18th century landscapes of Capability Brown and Humphry Repton transplanted to the cities. According to two select committees of Parliament in the 1830s and 1840s, parks would improve morals, prevent disease and reduce crime.

In the 1990s, Victoria Park, like most of its contemporaries, is a monument: it is Grade II starred ('outstanding') on English Heritage's historic parks register. Mr Driscoll says he regards it as a 'piece of architecture' in need of sensitive conservation. But it is other things too: a social service, a sports arena, an art gallery, an adventure playground.

Are these uses compatible? At a cost of more than pounds 1m a year, many of the stolen, lost or vandalised mock-Gothic and neo-Classical splendours of Victoria Park are being restored. The exercise has a Canute-like flavour. From the top of a filing cabinet, Mr Driscoll picks up a pile of sawn-through bolts - all that remains of one of the elegant new wrought- iron benches. Even with 24- hour security, three hanging baskets have gone missing.

Most important, perhaps, a park is a piece of countryside. Last year the magazine Landscape Design surveyed politicians and others on their views of urban parks. An 'overwhelming majority' saw parks as 'green lungs . . . green havens . . . breathing spaces . . . refuges . . . sanctuaries.'

Yet tastes change: the formalism of Victorian parks may be a liability. Chris Baines, landscape architect and author, is foremost among those advocating wilder landscapes in parks - woodlands, flower meadows, grassy 'rides'. Two- thirds of those living in urban areas have no access to a car, he points out: the park may be their only taste of countryside.

According to Tom Turner, chairman of the Landscape Institute's open space policy group, parks need to be 'democratised'. He wants 'adopt-a-park' schemes: each with a Friends' body, voluntary wardens and gardeners, and perhaps 'specialist' functions - kite-flying, berrying.

The park has also taken on a grander role. Mr Baines says it may be the only place where large trees can survive in cities. It is now part of an urban greenway system - an alternative transport network for walkers and wildlife. Parks should be productive: woods for timber and carbon-fixing, grass for hay, city farms.

New approaches may save, or raise, money. 'Wild' planting can cost a tenth of orthodox horticulturalism. Central Park, in New York, costs more than pounds 2m a year to maintain but raises five times that from the local community.

Mr Driscoll calls the lobby for less intensively managed parks 'vociferous but small'. Most people see an ecological area as an 'untidy mess', he says. He is resigned to his pounds 1m restoration budget disappearing and to inevitable deterioration. But he can see only two alternative futures: turning the park into 'an environmental area, or into Disneyland'. He doesn't relish either.

(Photograph omitted)

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