'Public parks' should be rejuvinated under local community management

Central London’s public parks are great. They are well-planned, well-designed and well-used. But the typical London suburban park, in Chris Baines’ great phrase, is ‘a green desert with lollipop trees’. The grass is mown; they trees are over-managed. The people hardly use these green deserts, except for Saturday sport. It is these spaces which make us fear the ‘death of the park’. The Heritage Lottery Fund HLF, however, tries to restore these dreary spaces to their ‘former glory’ ie to their condition in the days when the proletariat could not afford gardens or holidays or cars or doctors. Horniman Gardens could all too easily be like this. But no: it has escaped the curse of standardised municipal management. Instead, it is host to a museum which is managed in tandem with the gardens. So they illustrate some of the ways in which public parks can be revived.
First, you remove them from the day-to-day control of municipal government. Find someone else to do the job: a trust, a community group, a school, a museum, a church, or whatever. But make sure that body only has one garden or park to care for.
Horniman Gardens are managed by a Public Museum and Public Park Trust. It’s a quango – but it shows far more sensitivity to users than what Alistair Campbell would doubtless call ‘a bog standard London park’. The Horniman Trust knows its users.
Second, you make it part of the Chelsea Fringe, even if it is nowhere near Chelsea. Then invite individuals and groups to organise events: story-telling, beer bars, gin bars, theatrical events, plant sales, planted cars, book sales, concerts, folk dancing, folk singing, a dog show – and poetry readings. The Chelsea Fringe has great examples of such events and they really bring people into parks and gardens.
Volunteer programmes are another way of involving the community. They work very well in America. So why shouldn’t they work even better in London? We are a Nation of Gardeners. London is the world’s Garden Capital. But the management of our parks date from the Great Reform Act of 1832 and it’s time for a change. So: let’s convert public parks into community parks!
And – there’s one more thing. We should put qualified landscape architects in charge of our parks. They know how to manage them. So let’s get on with it. We can have new parks for our new lives

38 thoughts on “'Public parks' should be rejuvinated under local community management

  1. Adam Hodge

    Tom; Why do you feel that landscape architects would make better urban green-space managers than people emerging from places like Kew ? Are they groomed with such management in mind or to be practically creative in the art of landscape architecture.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Good question! And I was thinking about it today, before reading your comment. The simple answer is that I have seen them do it in other countries (eg Denmark). A better answer is that landscape architects are trained to (1) work with all five compositional elements: plants, water, landform, buildings and pavings (2) focus on the interaction between people and places.
      Some Kew-trained people (like Dan Pearson) also have these skills – but it is not part of the their training.
      With regard to creative design skills I have to admit that, from the landscape architecture profession, I have seen more examples of non-creative design than of what I regard as good design [but PLEASE don’t ask me to give an explanation of ‘good design’!)

  2. Christine

    Adam, can you tell us more about ‘people emerging from Kew’ – and in this respect other Botanical Gardens around the world. What makes them unique? What skills sets and perspectives to they bring to the task of ‘urban green space managers’?

  3. Adam Hodge

    I have always been aware that many of the leading gardens or parks around the world were /are headed up by Kew-trained or Wisley/RHS trained personel . The few folk I knew going through Kew whilst I was at Pershore ended up in jobs running Parks or in one instance the War Graves Commission. Most of my Pershore/Hadlow/Merrist Wood/Oaklands contemporaries went into jobs in nurseries or to a much lesser extent-Garden Centres.

    Perhaps it would be interesting to discover how many landscape architect students choose to work in a Park after they leave Tom’s establishment or Sheffield or similar places of learning.

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    I once applied for a job with Birmingham Parks Department and was not offered a job. My guess is that very few landscape architects think of jobs with Parks Departments and that the explanations are (1) it is not in line with their career expectations (2) the job descriptions from Parks Departments are not aimed at landscape architects.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The first step would be to write job descripions so that give horticulturalists and landscape architects equal status in the recruitment process, preferably by defining the role of parks manager as something much more than horticulture. Then, I hope, landscape architects would apply and, in due course, work their ways up the careers ladders. They cannot have jobs by dint of their qualifications: they have to prove they can do the job.

  5. Adam Hodge

    Interesting thoughts although I harbour the suspicion that architects, especially Landscape Architects are driven more by the creative element of work more than maintenance of what is already created.As a Parks Manager, the creative element over,say a 10 year stretch, would be pretty minimal.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I agree but not all landscape architects are creative in physical design terms (‘construction and planting’) and there are many other ways of being creative: socially, ecologically, organisationally, commercially and in terms of events etc. I cycled through much of the South London Green Chain in good weather last weekend. The conventional parks were EMPTY, including the good-looking Maryon Wilson Park where scenes from Blow Out were filmed. The only busy spaces, on a Saturday morning, were Charlton House and a small private sports field which was holding a boot sale. Charlton House Park is empty on most days but is a great historic house and garden: if the National Trust was running it there would be crowds everywhere.

  6. Adam Hodge

    ….’there are many other ways of being creative: socially, ecologically, organisationally, commercially and in terms of events etc.’ Yes but are they particular to the skills of a landscape architect, harking back to the final point in your blog

    The fact that the Horniman Trust,as you suggest,has revived Horniman Gardens and the National Trust seem to be able to generate crowds suggests there isn’t a focus by the municipal managers to actively use the spaces under their management for the public’s benefit…be it a space for performances by local musical groups of all genre, a setting for local Amdram, a place for families to play, with pop-up food nearby, the ideas are limitless.
    Perhaps we need to lobby local councils or our own MP’s to get commercial with the parks spaces ,as we’ve alluded to.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      In his lecture about the Olympic/Queen Elizabeth (or should it be Olympic-Queen-Elizabeth?) Park, George Hargreaves commented that in his briefs for the redesign of American parks ‘income generation’ looms large in the clients’ list of wants. Similarly, the Royal Parks have hopes of making them financially self-sufficient (or, rather, the Treasury hope they will do it). But most municipal parks are stuck in the 1960s. Their employers get most of the money from central government and the voters repsond to national instead of local concerns. So they scarcely care one fiddlestick for what the public want.
      I did not mean to make an exclusive claim for landscape architects’ ability to run parks. I think they are community spaces and that their management should not belong to any one skill of discipline. But I definitely do not think they should be the exclusive preserve of horticulturalists in the way dentists dominate dentistry.

  7. Christine

    There are many successful models for the management of parklands around the world [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Bank_Parklands ] and there are a variety of types of parks. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_Line_(New_York_City) ]

    Perhaps a parks management course might be a great component of both the horticulture degree at Kew degree and the landscape architecture degree at Greenwich? A shared approach to curriculum design and delivery might promote the best outcome as well as giving students an interesting opportunity to mix with each other and learn other aspects of the work of other professionals in the field?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Interesting Wiki article on the South Bank Parklands, thank you, though it would benefit from more info on the design and subsequent management of the area.
      Although I mentioned the example of dentistry yesterday, as an example of a profession which has justification for being run as a closed shop, I do not think this is correct. You obviously need highly trained dentists for diagnosis but I believe that a lot more dental work could be done by technicians. This is happening, a little, in the UK with the advent of dental hygenists. But I see no reason why technicians should not also do routine fillings.
      For park design and park management I see a case for a wide range of professional backgrounds contributing to the work of both design and management. I would hope that my own profession (landscape architecture) could demonstrate particular skills but if they can’t do the best job then the jobs should not be theirs.

  8. Christine

    I am not sure why, but Australia and America does seem to have a higher level of dental care (evidenced by people with straight white teeth) across the general population than the UK.

    There may be a difference in how the professions are structured, how the field operates and is funded or in the healthcare system generally. Or it could have to do with public health policies about fluoride in the water, or even the genetic incidence of exposure to diseases which affect teeth and are heritable (ie syphillis).

    Here is some more information on the board members of southbank and the senior management team.[ http://www.southbankcorporation.com.au/board-members ]

    They do seem to constantly review the design of the area, both at the level of each element, at the masterplan level,at the precinct level and at the urban interface level.

    The parklands also hosts a range of significant events – some which are part of a calendar (ie New Years Eve celebrations) and others which are special events.

    There is most probably a deal of consideration given to the capacity of the parklands to host events and facilitate day to day useage (ie the life of the parklands) when considering design solutions at a range of levels.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      My mum believed she was doing the right thing about her children’s teeth when she took us to the dentist every six months. The dentist then gave each kid two fillings every time we saw him. We also used to get free samples of a delicious tasting sweet strawberry-flavoured tootpaste – I wish I knew if contained sugar! Years later, we discovered that the man was effectively on piece work. He got no money for protecting our teeth from decay but he was paid for doing fillings. So we got a lot of them!
      Re the South Bank Corporation, the website does not give their qualifications but its composition seems not like that of the membership of the South Bank Centre in London, which has less greenspace http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/ It is a good way of running a POS. Unfortunately, we do not have that kind of arrangement for public parks. We run them more like public lavatories – minimum expenditure, minimum standards and little serious concern for the ‘user experience’.

  9. christine

    Yes. My visits to the school dentist as a child consisted of having a tooth extracted each time.
    I am not sure to this day whether this day if this was a good or a bad thing – some teeth missing but not a crowded mouth! [ http://www.preventivedentistry.com.au/a-little-canberra-dental-history ] Canberra seemed to have best practice dental health policies at the time.
    [ http://theconversation.com/how-fluoride-in-water-helps-prevent-tooth-decay-6933 ]

    Strange you should say that about lavatories…at one time the most educational tour a designer could take of Europe was visiting the bathrooms. The where the places at the forefront of design thinking and innovation! [ http://designdeskark2.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Designer-Philippe-Starck-expand-bathroomfurniture.1-587×405.jpg ] and [ http://www.interiordesign.net/photo/306/306553-idx090701_kbpro07.jpg ] and [ http://www.captivatist.com/extra-large-mirrors-floor-philippe-starck-1.jpg.jpg ] and [ http://blogs.artinfo.com/objectlessons/files/2012/10/philippe-starck.jpg ]

    Is Philippe Starck still the bathroom guru?

    Beyond considerations of styling there are the green innovations. Water saving and seat warming;
    [ http://www.igreenspot.com/toto-neorest-ah-hybrid-toilet/ ] Re-use of basin waste water for flushing [ http://s3.amazonaws.com/files.posterous.com/ideasoutloud/wBEHatJIzlpxwJhhvmzwguFdxqnJdHxEiofCHdAaApAADBznjCmdizAhwkdC/media_httpwwwspringwi_fDyyy.jpg.scaled1000.jpg?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJFZAE65UYRT34AOQ&Expires=1371793798&Signature=ZZIm%2B8EV38QT%2FV8iADLvIGKd2aY%3D ]

    At the other end of the spectrum Bill Gates is looking for a poverty reducing version:
    [ http://www.wired.com/design/?p=133903 ]

    I am for a modern re-interpretation of the Roman public toilets and bath house complexes for the developing world as start-up civic infrastructure.
    [ http://historyoftheancientworld.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Roman-toilets-480×360.jpg ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Amazing about your dentist. If you had been to the dentist 32 times there would have been nothing left!
      The cleanest/best lavatories and bathrooms I have seen were in Japan.
      The decor can be super http://trendszine.com/interior/2010/06/02/japanese-bathroom-design.html
      The WCs are beyond imagination http://walyou.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/8-robotic-toilet.jpg Not too sustainable though!
      The Druk White Lotus School has sustainable VIP Toilets (Ventilated Improved Toilet) http://www.eai.in/colleges/files/2012/08/Ventilated-Improved-Latrines@-DWLS.jpg but my impression was that the outside looks better than the inside and that the ventilation is less than 100% effective.
      The Romans had a great idea in running streams beneath their toilets.

  10. Christine

    [ http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Teeth_development_in_children ]
    I am wondering whether my dentist had a contract with the tooth fairy and was saving her from payouts on the teeth!

    It seems the squatting toilet was the model in the east while the seated toilet was the model in the west.[ http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f9/OldJapaneseToilet.jpg ]

    Yes, Japanese bathrooms are a very interesting model – and perhaps the best starting point for rethinking bathroom design in the Buddhist tradition.

    Hmmm, it would be good to change from the Roman practice of direct discharge of waste into running streams – although the flushing water idea was the right one.

    Likewise feeding the human waste to the pigs, as was the practice in Japan, (this would make me go ‘Halal’) was not a great idea either. Wikipedia says “This practice was banned as unhygienic after World War II by the American authorities.”

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Direct ingestion does not seem wise but Germany kept the tradition of spreading ‘humanure’ on the land while hygienic London developed the practice of putting it in the sea. They are trying to spread more on the land but there is resistence. Really, Ladakh has the right idea: it should be properly composted and then spread on the land. I do not know the Buddha’s views on this topic but seems compliant with the principles of the Middle Way (between asceticism and luxury). My guess is that St Anthony just stepped outside his cave when nature called him.

  11. Christine

    It always seemped sensible to me that the very last place human waste would be used is for food production, particularly when we are so ignorant about many types and causes of disease.

    At present there has been concern in a Qld hospital about the contamination of showering water with legionalla (a soil and water borne disease). There have been two known deaths and a woman in her 40s was reported to be in a critical condition. [ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/legionella-testing-expensive-and-lengthy-minister-warns-20130624-2or83.html ] and [ http://www0.health.nsw.gov.au/factsheets/infectious/legionnaires.html ]

    Definitely, it would be preferable to use treated human waste to garden where the products of the garden are for display rather than consumption, although I am not sure that reductions in hygiene standards are preferrable in any instance. [ http://theconversation.com/the-other-benefit-of-sanitation-from-human-waste-to-human-food-10795 ]

    The question is – to what level should human waste be treated and what should happen to the treatment bi-products?

    St Anthony, as a hermit, probably did not need to concern himself with the problems of urban living!

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      In Ladakh every rural family (ie most families) has a toilet which works like this
      The video shows both the hole and the garden. Beneath the hole is a heap of s*** which is removed once/year and dug into the garden. I wonder if the local and domestic scale of the operation helps limit the spread of infection. Perhaps, but communities also build up resistencies to infections. It was the lack of resistence which caused the population of South America to suffer so badly from the conquistadores – and it is a lack of resistence which caused England’s elm trees, and now its ash trees, to be so badly affected by infections.

  12. Christine

    Hmmm. There is from memory a philosophy of carrying all human waste out with you on the Cradle Mountains Walk in Tasmania, although the Parks and Wildlife website states that digging a hole and burying human waste is acceptable. [ http://www.parks.tas.gov.au/index.aspx?base=406 ]

    Do they take similar precautions with depths and distances from camping areas and water sources in Ladakh? The precautions are to preserve the health of the environment, including the animals.

    The standard of ‘leave no trace’ is a higher standard than Glen Murcutt’s ‘touch the earth lightly’ [ http://marty-dab310.blogspot.com.au/ ] which is an indigenous proverb.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I am pretty sure there are no regulations in Ladakh – but nor is there much need for them. The figures are
      Ladakh: Area 86,904 km2, Population 270,126, Density 3.1/km2
      England Area 130,395 km2, Population 53,012,456 Density 407/km2
      When I looked up these figures I was expecting to find that Ladakh had more land than England. It doesn’t but its population is about that of a small English town (eg Reading).
      And re South East England, I think its unavoidable destiny is to become one large city. Indeed, if envelopes (and my concern) last long enough then I will do a back-of-envelope plan for it.
      Re wilderness areas, I agree with the policy of the Tasmanian Parks service – but it might not be an easy policy to implement unless one carries a trenching tool.

  13. Christine

    It is an interesting question, at what point, and in what circumstances does the need for regulations arise?

    If London becomes a super-city as you say, undoubtably the scale of the city will require a rethink of how everything is organised, perhaps at both the macro and mirco scales. What are the thresholds you are thinking of for area, population and density of a super-city?

    There doesn’t seem to be a uniform classification of settlement patterns.[ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Town ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      London is said to be, once again, the fastest growing city in Europe – and to have a housing demand which could be accommodated only by doubling its size. At present the rising population is being accommodated by building upwards. I am sorry to see this happen but it is better than letting it expand north, south of west. East (into what is called the Thames Gateway) is more acceptable. I see no evidence of it being well done but all the expansion is regulated by Town and Country Planning legislation,

  14. Christine

    Yes, the problem of accommodating population growth within cities like London needs greater consideration than can be given than by the usual regulatory planning response. There is a great difference between the needs of new greenfields development and the infill and redevelopment in established and historic cities.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Regulating the growth of London is theoretically possible, by refusing planning permission to all new development. But there are two problems (1) central government has the power to instruct local authorities to make land available for housing (2) the UK has no power to limit imigration from other EU member countries. Neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative party is willing to debate this issue – so we are seeing the meteoric rise of UKIP. Most of its policies are ‘pub talk’ and ‘golf club talk’ but it is willing to discuss EU imigration and the electorate is finding this debate very interesting. So the overhanging issue on London’s size is that if the UK economy does better than that of ANY other EU member states then there will be big increases in London’s population.

  15. Christine

    There are people who believe in the elimination of borders. I am not sure that this is a good idea. Certainly the indigenous people of Australia didn’t come out of it too well when ships started sailing into Sydney Harbour and depositing keen and not so keen new people on the shore.

    So (1) is not such a problem but (2) may be.

    What is the philosophy in the EU of open borders?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The EU would like to have open borders between member states (as between US or Australian states) but controlled borders round an ever-expanding EU. Lots of people argue for Turkish membership of the EU. I regard Turkey and Russia (but not Siberia) as culturally part of Europe but I am not in favour of the free movement of peoples between the EU, Russia and Turkey. A better plan would be to ‘count them in’ and ‘count them out’ so that if a million UK citizens emigrate then we allow a million non-UK citizens to imigrate. This seems fair – and it would have protected the indigenous people of Australia.

  16. Christine

    It seems that the situation between the states (which were former self-governing colonies) in Australia and the US is more similar to the situation that exists between the united kingdoms of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, than between the union of States in Europe.

    But, perhaps as I am viewing this from the outside, there are other opinions about this in the UK?

    That said, perhaps, there is a middle path that could be followed in allowing free movement of peoples in the EU? Perhaps counting them ‘in’ and counting them ‘out’ might be a good approach as well as determining when it is in the best interests of the UK to increase and decrease the intake, according to national circumstance?

    If this second approach was also adopted, how would one decide what is when it is in the best interests of the UK and the national circumstances to increase or decrease the intake?

    Is democratic government a fundamental part of the European Union?

    At present it seems both Turkey and Russia have significant internal political issues to resolve.

  17. Adam Hodge

    Returning the comments back to your original blog discussion , it seems that Grosvenor Square is hosting a summer of events geared up for children’s entertainment during the day and small music performances in the early evening ! It all looks very good ! http://www.grosvenorlondon.com

    Somebody must be listening to you Tom !

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Thank you for the link. I am fostering the delusion that London’s planners are avid readers of the blog – while kidding their friends and family that they do not know of its existence! Beer helps with this task I have set myself.
      I happened to pass the American Embassy in Grovesnor Square and then the Chinese Embassy in Portland Place one day last week. The former is guarded like a prison camp with a high fence and bobbies with submachine guns (when it moves south of the river it will be more like a medieval fortress, with a moat). The Chinese Embassy only has one bobby outside – but it also has a Falung Gong protest on the opposite side of the street. These symbols represent the fact that the US attracts violent protests from other nations and China attracts non-violent protests from its own people. Which is best?

  18. Christine

    Does this mean that the threats to the US are predominantly external while the threats to China are internal?

    I am not sure whether a war between countries or a civil war is best.

    In America the war between countries resulted in its independence from Britian and the war between citizens resulted in union and the abolition of slavery. Perhaps you can think of some other examples?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I did not think of it – but you may well be right. America is suffering from strategic over-reach (as Paul Kennedy called in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers). I do not think China is under any threat – unless chaos results from the surely-inevitable decline in the power of the Communist Party. Chinese history is characterised by periods of stability and periods of violent upheaval. I have read that America’s Civil War was even more bitter than the First World War. I would find it hard to choose between the two options but Civil wars can often lead to periods of prosperity – it is like a couple getting on better after a good ‘sort-out’. England’s Civil War led to the golden age of the eighteenth century – and China’s Civil War led to its present prosperity. Chairman Mao achieved much by liberating and educating women, though the benefits took a while to come through.

  19. Adam Hodge

    The US Embassy seems to find itself needing such elaborate protection because it has created so many enemies,which one notices are from nations where the US have chosen to impose their militaristic rule in what seems a very heavy-handed manner. They are also being equally heavy handed in their internal law-enforcement http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323848804578608040780519904.html?mod=WSJ_hpp_LEFTTopStories

    The Chinese in contrast appear to have been particularly heavy handed with their own citizens hence the nature of protest.

    Your final question Tom in your blog no.34,is I feel, misdirected.Surely the question is more about the reason behind the protest. Perhaps the protesters need to garner more international support through mediums like AVAAZ.org who seem to be making significant changes around the world.

  20. Tom Turner Post author

    Adam: yes, both are bad and so neither can be ‘best’. I like the AVAAZ.org site and have signed a petition re Edward Snowdon. He seems to be in the tradition of John Wilkes. International protests do help but they tend to be slow-acting, as with the late unlamented Soviet Empire.


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