Dark age of the public park: The green spaces in our towns and cities are more neglected than ever. Susan Lasdun calls for a national agency to safeguard and promote them

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The Independent Online
Jst before the general election, recommendations were published for improvements to Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, London. The report, by the Royal Parks Review Commission, was widely welcomed and the Government responded by shifting responsibility for all royal parks from the Department of the Environment to the new Department of National Heritage. The minister in charge of parks, Robert Key, says the Government is now 'committed to maintaining and improving' them.

Yet if the royal parks have been rescued from neglect (and many would doubt this), the plight of our urban public parks is worse than ever. This week, the Landscape Institute and the Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management (Ilam) are calling on the Secretary of State for National Heritage, David Mellor, to set up a national agency for their care.

Ilam's director, Alan Smith, says: 'The present national agencies for sport, arts, nature conservancy, countryside and heritage have only a minor interest in urban open space, and have proved unable to protect or arrest the neglect of these national interests.'

Our public parks are as much a part of our national heritage as their royal relations. Most are the legacy of the Victorians' burst of civic park-making, which it was hoped would alleviate the suffering of the new urban poor by providing open places for recreation.

By the end of the 19th century, open spaces in the image of the country-house landscaped park had been laid out for the working classes in most towns and cities. Since then local authorities have also acquired many private country-house parks which were either bequeathed by their owners or bought by councils after they were encircled by the expanding town.

Public parks are administered almost exclusively by local councils. This was once their most important task, even though they were never legally bound to provide or maintain them. The only exceptions are the few parks acquired under the Open Spaces Act of 1906, which they are merely obliged to keep 'in a good and decent state'.

Today, councils have a statutory duty to provide a wide range of services, and parks are no longer a high priority. There is no definition of the standard of service expected in public parks and the problem is compounded by the Government's refusal to make parks a separate item in the Standing Spending Assessments, putting them instead under the general heading of 'all other services'.

This has led to financial restraints which discourage local authorities from protecting or developing the green spaces in their care. They also limit research into who uses parks and why; why some people do not; what people want from their parks; and how often they visit them This information is needed to decide how best to allocate scant funds, and is vital for the future development and management of parks. So far, only about 10 councils have been able to complete such surveys.

Because there is little feedback from the public, it is difficult for those responsible to make positive decisions about managing parks. They complain that the public responds only when a negative proposal is suggested, such as banning dogs, removing trees or shutting lavatories.

Low funding and the lack of public involvement have caused a decline in morale among many park officers. In some authorities, they argue, maintenance rather then management has become the priority. Often there is neither a landscape architect nor a park manager, the latter the linchpin between the public and the officers.

Parks are vital to the welfare of a community. Recent studies in the US suggest a correlation between crime and social problems and the state of public parks, and have prompted an increase in funding - private and public - to restore them. In Boston, for example, the city's poverty action programme includes restoring the 'emerald necklace' of parkland designed by the landscape architect Frederick Olmsted in the 19th century. The result bears out Olmsted's dictum that 'a rural retreat' is an 'essential recreational need in the heart of the city'.

This view is echoed in many European countries. In Germany, it has been mandatory since 1976 for every city to produce a green-space plan. Spain and France have strong policies for improving their urban green spaces. But in England there is nothing to stop local authorities

'. . . flogging public parks

To Sainsbury's and Marks and Sparks'

which, according to this versifier, is just what some are doing. What happens more often is that parks are nibbled away as councils bow to pressure to release parkland for roads, public buildings or private developments - all of which ultimately destroys the spirit of the place. An example of this erosion was the sale in 1990 of part of Gunnersbury Park, London, by Hounslow Borough Council for building.

Yet the Victorians' original purpose in laying out public parks is as relevant as ever. After the Toxteth riots of 1981, Michael Heseltine, the Secretary of State for the Environment, called for open spaces to be developed and initiated a garden festival. On the other side of the Mersey, Birkenhead Park - which Olmsted visited before laying out Central Park in New York - provides the countryside for a whole community. Children, in spite of the regulations, still build treehouses there and camp on the islands in the lake.

As well as providing a garden for those who do not have one, a local park can host a network of social activities and strengthen a sense of community and civic pride. It is also a potential tourist attraction - an asset which has hardly been tapped. When one considers how many people tramp around private and National Trust gardens open to the public, if local authority parks were improved and offered a wider variety of landscapes, flowers, trees and shrubs, they too could attract similar numbers.

It is time to establish a national agency to protect our public parks, as has been done for our country and national parks. Such an agency would advise both government and local authorities on the standards, legal obligations and resources needed to maintain and improve them. It would encourage grant-aided restoration schemes, and initiate comprehensive user-surveys. And it could ensure that when the national lottery is introduced, urban parks are a substantial beneficiary.

Susan Lasdun is the author of 'The English Park, Royal, Private and Public', published by Andre Deutsch at pounds 20.

(Photograph omitted)