Space for green reinvention: Our urban parks are a salute to Victorian values, but David Nicholson-Lord asks whether they still meet our needs in 1994

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IT WAS a bit like old times yesterday in Dulwich Park, south London. There were jugglers, clowns, a regimental band, a dog show. There was an orienteering race in which everyone who took part won an Easter egg. And there were six individuals in smart green trousers and lumberjack shirts, doing a lot of talking.

A bit like old times, but not a lot. The chief similarity - to the park's glory days around the turn of the century, at least - was the presence of people, in large numbers, enjoying the greenery and open air. But whoever heard of orienteering in an urban park? And where were the park keepers of yesteryear? Can they really have been replaced by a species known as park rangers?

Look around and you will see further signs of change and decay. There is an ecology area (fenced off from the public) and a squirrel assault course. There is a horticultural therapy garden, built for the disabled but mainly used by kids for races on bikes - the smooth tarmac chicanes are irresistible. One toilet block is closed, there are trolleys and litter bins in the lake, there is an epidemic of fat-footed Canada geese trampling the greensward into mudflats, and the wooden ship in the playground has been burnt by vandals. And surrounding the ecology area in a great girdle are the 'green deserts' detested by ecologists - swaths of close-mown grasslands pocked with solitary 'lollipop' trees.

For all the spirit of adventure - the park ranger service launched yesterday by the London borough of Southwark is the first in the capital - Dulwich remains a typical modern park, clearly fulfilling some sort of function but fraying perceptibly at the edges and in the throes of what looks uncommonly like an identity crisis. What kind of place is it supposed to be? The parallel that springs to mind is the reassessment of a marriage when the children have left: after a century and a half of complacent coexistence, we are suddenly no longer sure what parks are for.

The result, inevitably, is argument. Last year, prompted by the growing talk of crisis and cutbacks, two cultural think-tanks, Comedia and Demos, launched a study into the future of the urban park which has thrown up some alarming findings. After visiting more than 50 parks, the authors, Liz Greenhalgh and Ken Worpole, have concluded that 'fiercer local battles are fought over parks and park uses than almost any other area of local government provision'.

These go far beyond the rows over dogs and their by-products. In one park, nearby residents bolt, superglue or weld the gates shut at night to prevent its use by teenage drinkers. In a London square, non-parent residents telephone the council every day to complain of other residents' children playing football. Just about any development proposal - whether for children's play equipment, ethnic festivals or grazing sheep - is routinely and powerfully opposed. 'It is suddenly clear,' the authors comment, 'that many people believe parks and open spaces to be negative assets . . . their hatred of them is actually an expression of hatred for the public realm.'

Parks epitomise this public realm. They are open to everyone. They impose no fees and few rules. They dictate no particular etiquette. For most people in cities, they are the nearest thing to the commons of our rural ancestors. With the high street now bundled up into an out-of-town superstore, what other space is there where 'community', however defined, can be renewed?

But do we really hate our parks? The evidence seems to indicate otherwise. A survey in the London borough of Camden found public gardens were the best-used leisure facilities - with four-fifths of respondents wanting more green space. Research in the US, published in Landscape Research, has shown that people who live in cities where there is more 'nature' are significantly less stressed than in those where there are no natural elements. The Greenwich Open Spaces project, a study by University College, London, has found that green areas have a vital symbolic importance to people: they are 'gateways to a better world'.

A key concept is 'nature'. Western society has an increasing taste for wilderness - but, as fear-of-crime surveys attest, it worries us, too, especially in cities where greenery can harbour muggers and child molesters. Yet among the Greenwich project's most important conclusions is that 'people find it impossible to talk about open spaces without also talking about nature . . . open spaces are enjoyed first and foremost because they are part of a living world'.

The truth may lie in between. We have a vision of what parks might be but dislike, in many cases, what they have become.

The Victorians were subject to no such ambivalence. In Victoria Park, London's first great 'created' public park, opened in the 1840s, 25,000 people plunged into the bathing lakes before 8am. In 1892, 303,516 people strolled through it on Whit Monday, making it Britain's most visited park. Such parks were triumphs of the new municipalism. Their builders believed they were a cure for social disorder, not a cause of it. They were also a celebration of one of Britain's most distinctive contributions to cultural history, the 18th-century landscape movement of Kent, Brown and Repton, whose vision of nature was transposed to the cities from the 1830s onwards. By 1885 more than 180 parks had been created.

That inheritance now stands in peril. Local authorities cannot afford the maintenance and are putting their green space up for sale. Manchester, despite its aspirations to an Olympic image, is uprooting shrubs by the acre because they collect litter. Even Southwark, for all the boldness of its park ranger initiative, has sold off bits of Burgess Park, which was one of the most ambitious schemes of park creation since the war.

In a paper for the Comedia-Demos study, Alan Barber, of the Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management, points out that spending on urban open spaces has fallen from 54 per cent of the total in 1981-82 to 44 per cent 10 years later and argues that parks are subject to a 'triple whammy'. There is no statutory obligation to provide them, they are not counted in the standard spending assessment which governs central government's grant to councils and there is no central body, comparable to the Countryside Commission for rural areas, which looks after them.

Yet if the great Victorian park has run into a blind alley, its slow-motion wreckage is yielding a number of clues to the future. First, the days of municipal empire are behind us: there is much scope for devolving the management of green spaces to user and community groups. Second, parks form a vital part of a new environmental strategy for cities: new productive land uses, for instance, or greenway networks for walkers, cyclists and riders - a kind of alternative transport system. Third, they must explain themselves to local people, not least to potential vandals - park rangers, in this context, represent a quantum leap forward. Fourth, we need to bring people back into parks - not merely to eat, drink and enjoy themselves, but to combat their fear of crime in open spaces. New land uses - allotments, city farms, forestry - are one way of achieving that. And fifth, once inside parks, we probably need clearer rules on how we are supposed to conduct ourselves there.

With a few honourable exceptions - Warrington new town, which pioneered the park ranger idea in Britain, for example, or the Black Country, where parks are experimenting with urban forestry - most of the new ideas are now coming from abroad: the Netherlands, Germany, the United States. Yet the modern urban park is a specifically English device, born of the early 19th-century conflict between industrial reality and Arcadian dream.

We invented the park - surely we have the resources to reinvent it?

The author's 'Calling in the Country: Ecology, Parks and Human Need', working paper 4 in the Comedia-Demos study on the future of urban parks and open spaces, is available at pounds 5 from Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4V 6AP.

(Photographs omitted)