Leading Article: Bringing parks to life

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The Independent Online
Weary of the strains of urban life, fed up with the television, frustrated by how hard it is to replicate Delia's masterpieces, unable to escape to the countryside, you turn for a breather to your local park. Through the great red and yellow M that adorns the gate, past flower-beds exuding the scent of Body Shop's Dewberry, you head towards the Coca-Cola fountain to feed the ducks. Relaxing on an Ikea painted green wood bench, you watch the children playing on My Little Pony rocking horses, safe beneath the benevolent eye of the BSkyB-sponsored closed-circuit television. Every corner of the park glows with colour, cleanliness and corporate sponsored wellbeing.

Such could be the future of the country's public spaces hinted at in a new report for the Department of Environment published this week. The aim of the report is to describe for local authorities the best practice in popular parks across the country. The case studies and descriptions of successful projects to make parks safe and pleasant places for every member of the local community are extremely welcome. Too many green spaces have deteriorated into deserted wasteland, threaded by dangerous walkways where women and children fear to tread.

But the big question for cash-strapped local authorities is how to fund the renaissance of the public park. Imaginative financial solutions suggested by the report include joint ventures with health and education authorities, and involving the private sector through franchising facilities or backing events. Hence the prospects of the park being used as a large advertising hoarding for corporate sponsors. Companies would get the chance to associate their product with recreation, relaxation, freedom and natural beauty. And the community would get the cash to reclaim their public space. It could be a novel and healthy combination of the public and the private and an antidote to the inexorable rise of the private theme park.

That does not mean parks need to rearrange their flower-beds into the shapes of commercial logos. Private finance has always been important to public space. If a few of today's super-rich individuals and wealthy companies exercised the generosity and the restraint of the Victorian philanthropists who built our big city parks, they could set in train a revival in mixed-use public spaces that so many of our cities require.