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Take good care in the park

Yesterday's announcement by the Heritage Lottery Fund of an ambitious funding programme for urban parks is timely and welcome. Parks are uniquely valued parts of our urban landscape and, in spite of serious patterns of decline, more than 8 million people will visit their local park today.

It is the social role that parks play in urban communities that is perhaps their most important contemporary function - as a realm of freedom in an otherwise expensive and regulated world. In this there are significant differences from the era in which the great Victorian town parks were developed. They were established to provide an escape from disease, over- crowding and promiscuous social behaviour.

It is this difference between then and now that raises potential problems for the best use of lottery money. The lottery guidelines naturally emphasise heritage, conservation and restoration themes; and because it is capital money, there is a consequent emphasis on landscapes, artefacts, the refurbishment of original buildings, appropriate Victorian fixtures and fittings and so on. But the dangers of it becoming a "new park-railings fund" must be avoided. There is already ample evidence that large sums of money spent on restoring original buildings without a programme of community consultation, development and involvement, will end in tears, as restored features are vandalised or burnt out again.

Applicants should apply some of their hardest thinking to the questions of safety and security. Parks are part of a continuum of contested public spaces in British towns and cities today, and problems of safety are simply addressed by the solution: more CCTV cameras, please. This will not do, even though at least one park in the North-east now has CCTV cameras and floodlights operating a dawn-to-dusk security regime among the play equipment and floral borders.

Elsewhere, parks managers are attempting to "crowd out crime" through events, encouraging more people back into parks, providing programmed activities and decent toilets, cafes and well designed play areas.

To be fair, the "heritage" guidelines display a sensitivity to these pressing social issues. But they also need to consider the unique role that parks now play as "public goods" in debates about urban environmental sustainability, bringing together ecological, social and cultural concerns in the one place. Will lottery funding not only allow parks to respect the past but also, and perhaps more importantly, anticipate a more sustainable future?

The writer was one of the authors of the Comedia/Demos report 'Park Life: urban parks and social renewal'.