On a sunny day, the job of park ranger looks ideal. You're out in the open, surrounded by birds, trees and happy picnickers. But being a parkie in an urban park is a challenging job - there are music and sporting events to run, fundraising to organise, graffiti to clean. As many of England's parks enjoy a well-deserved renewal, parkies have a lot to be proud of - and a lot on their plate.
Thirty years ago there was a parkie in every park - many bent on chasing children away from the flowerbeds. Then, after a decade of funding cuts in the 1980s, staff numbers declined and by the mid 1990s only a third of parks in England had on-site staff. The nation's green spaces fell into decline; many becoming places of crime and vandalism. But in the past few years there has been something of a parks revival, with many renovated and revamped as a result of community pressure groups, increased funding, and a firmer commitment from government to bring back parkies.
In a report issued last week, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment urged local authorities to build new, modern park forces, providing on-site staff in every urban park in England. This, it argues, will radically reduce anti-social behaviour and vandalism.
Take Leazes Park in Newcastle. By the mid 1990s the city's oldest green space was in an advanced state of decline, its bowling greens and tennis courts fallen into disuse. But the city council agreed to employ more staff, such as Anthony Purvis, 26, and all that changed. Purvis trained as a gardener, completing an NVQ Level 2 in horticulture, and then working at a garden centre. He moved into grounds maintenance - which was mainly grass cutting - and then applied for the job as park keeper in 2001. He says former colleagues in the gardening section envy his flexible hours, his £21,000 salary, and the joys of working outside.
Today the parkie's job involves several roles at once: horticulturist, community warden, educationalist and events organiser. Len Croney, board member of The Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management, explains that the job varies from place to place and tasks change according to the seasons. It includes dealing with litter, drug paraphernalia, and people who don't pick up after their dogs. On the more positive side, it means looking after plants and wildlife, and encouraging more people to use and enjoy the park.
You also need to know about disaster management, what to do if a pond is invaded by algae, and how to keep people away from a tree felled in a storm. Croney says the pay is better than that of countryside rangers, there are more job opportunities for urban rangers (especially in London and big cities) and the chances of career progression are better too. The starting salary for a park ranger/warden is around £15,000 depending on your employer (countryside rangers, even with a degree, start on £8,500). Once you have experience and are in charge of a team (anything from three to 20 people) you could be earning £19,000 or more. Most rangers receive on the job training, some study for City and Guild or BTEC qualifications while working, but there are also new foundation degree courses in the environment and conservation. The Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management offers professional development courses which teach skills such as how to organise events.
Rayne Passmore is head ranger at Mile End Park in east London, a newly revamped green space which, since last year, has had a dedicated team of park rangers. Passmore is a graduate in countryside management and human geography. After university he worked for park services in Tower Hamlets as a park keeper. "It was a 1980s idea of what the job was about, you wandered around doing reports on dangerous things."
But now he's in charge of a team of three and is responsible for the day-to-day running of Mile End Park. He works on a flexible calendar; if there is an event in the park he could start work at 6am and not go home until after dark - especially if he has a bat walk to organise or a Hallowe'en event for children.
While the park has inherited a drug problem from its years of neglect, he says it's not such an issue now. "We're not social services, but we try our best. We had a recent problem with young lovers sleeping in the park but we liaised with social services and the issue was solved." Passmore says a degree is not necessary; it's more a question of having the right attitude. He's a believer in friendly enforcement: "The old idea that parkies shout at kids doesn't work anymore, the kids just shout back."
Most parkies say there are certain times of the day when it's crucial to be around, especially when schools close. This is the time when John Robinson, ranger at Grange Park in Preston, knows he has to be visible. And Robinson has two rules that he always insists on: no bullying and no swearing in the park.
Newcastle park keeper Anthony Purvis says it's a great job with enormous satisfaction. "The best parts are when the public says the park is lovely. You're in the park all the time, it's like it's your park. It's a great job, whatever the weather. I'm sitting in the sunshine right now, it'll get cold but I'll just grin and bear it."
The Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management www.ilam.co.uk
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