Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda


Memorandum by the Department of Landscape, University of Sheffield (TCP 32)

BACKGROUND

  The Department of Landscape is an internationally renowned centre for education and research in landscape design, planning and management. In the last Research Assessment and Teaching Quality Assessment we were graded five out of five and 23 out of 24 respectively. We are unusual in that we provide education in both landscape design and management, indeed the name of the Department deliberately employs "Landscape" with no further qualification in recognition of our holistic perspective. Staff within the department are actively involved in practice as well as teaching and research, and have first hand experience of the problems facing public parks.

  In common with staff in other institutions concerned with the "Landscape" we have become increasingly saddened and disillusioned by the general decline in the state of public parks in the UK. This decline is a long-term malaise, which in many cases has been ongoing throughout the 20th century, with an acceleration taking place in the past 40 years. This is evidenced in part by the introduction of new forms of management, since that time, i.e., bonus schemes to improve productivity, and latterly CCT, that were hoped to improve parks through management. The great paradox that we face today is that whilst park managers are much more sophisticated in terms of management principles and practices than ever before, the quality of the product (i.e., the park) is generally either static or declining.

  In this submission I wish to focus most strongly on the issue of the experience parks offer to their visitors. This experience consists of a conglomerate of factors, however we are particularly concerned with what might broadly be described as "aesthetic factors", i.e., does it look, smell, and feel good, is it a stimulating, rich place to visit, does it leave one with memorable positive experiences? Urban dwellers flock in droves to National Trust and other "institutional" parks, paying heavily for fuel to get there and fees to be admitted precisely because they seek to take their leisure in places that are aesthetically rich. We recognise that enrichment can take place through other routes, for example planned or unplanned social interaction, but we leave this to other contributors to expand upon.

  At the broadest level of thinking we would suggest the following are important contributors to why relatively few public parks outside central London actually stimulate visitors in the way described.

THE ABSENCE OF A NATIONAL AGENCY-LEGAL REQUIREMENTS FOR LA'S TO MAINTAIN PARKS AT A MINIMUM STANDARD

  It seems extraordinary that in a society as urbanised as the UK, there is no equivalent body to the Countryside Commission to fight the corner for public parks. If we are serious about energy issues, etc. we need to try and encourage people to take their leisure near where they live not in some romanticised countryside. Such an agency would provide guidance on best practice, offer skilled advice, fund research into key issues and disseminate the results. This latter issue is picked up later in this submission. Against the backcloth of no statutory responsibility to maintain parks at a minimum level some local authorities have used CCT to transfer resources from greenspace to other areas with a higher political profile, further worsening the situation.

A LACK OF AESTHETIC VISION AS TO WHAT PARKS MANAGEMENT SHOULD PRODUCE?

  Highly efficient managers may (and often do!) produce parks that lack any real aesthetic richness. In Germany the Director of Parks is generally a Landscape Architect, rather than a horticulturist or a Leisure Manager. It may or may not be purely coincidental that German public parks are amongst the best in the world. Landscape architects are potentially good at maintaining a strategic, aesthetically based view of the landscape. Public parks are part of a greater greenspace system and it is vital that decisions made on a specific site recognise this connectivity.

  Other than the fact that they spend more per m2 on maintenance and have more control over users, how can large National Trust Gardens present their parks as such infinitely more exciting places? One answer is that through their centralised garden advisor system and property based head gardener they have a clear aesthetic vision for what is to be achieved. I would suggest that there is no equivalent vision for most public parks. Some parks managers have told me that the main things the public are concerned about (following surveys of users) in public parks is how clean the toilets are plus the threat of being attacked. Whilst these are clearly important they are also part of the dumbing down of expectations within the public and managers.

CHRONIC UNDERSPEND ON PARKS MAINTENANCE AND CAPITAL REFURBISHMENT

  Spend per m2 is frequently at or below the level that it is possible to achieve any sort of quality. Sheffield is a case in point, 15 years ago it employed approximately 800 staff in its parks, now the number is around 250. It seems clear that 800 staff probably represented a gross overmanning but current levels are below the acceptable cut off. If we want better we need to spend more as council tax payers, it is as simple as that.

INADEQUATELY TRAINED-MOTIVATED STAFF TO DELIVER A QUALITY PUBLIC PARK PRODUCT

  This operates at a number of levels:

Bringing the appropriate skills together from various disciplines within local authorities

  This is perhaps most significant at the level of parks refurbishment. Most of our urban parks stock is C19th. Most of it needs significant "strategic" refurbishment, without which no matter how much money is poured into maintenance the product will continue to be low quality. Till the arrival of the lottery such refurbishments were extremely uncommon, with new works carried out via a patch it up, unsatisfactorily piecemeal approach. All parks departments should run a refurbishment programme, gradually working through all parks in their authority to a timetable to meet agreed park design and management goals. Integration of designers, managers, leisure professionals and the community are vital to this process. Often designers sit within another department, separate from parks managers, this lack of integration in decision making is extremely harmful to the quality of parks.

Train staff more effectively

  Most middle and senior parks management staff have a horticultural training which is then supplemented by management training. It could be argued that where such staff do not work in close co-operation with landscape designers, they would benefit from additional training to allow them to better recognise aesthetic goals for park development and maintenance and how to achieve this in practice. An example of this might be something as simple as amending a specification for shrub pruning, to coppice shrubs to ground level when they exceed certain dimensions then allow the canopy to re-grow a natural form, before future coppicing, rather than to shear shrubs into cubes on an annual or biennial cycle. The latter scenario is the one you find in nearly all new towns that are now managed by the LA parks contractor. If one attends ILAM conferences, one finds that aesthetics and design in general is rarely mentioned and that there is a palpable sense that it isn't really what parks are about. In short there is often a divide between designers and managers that restricts the quality of urban parks.

  On the operational side of parks maintenance there appears to be a loss of what might be termed "craft" skills. This is a difficult issue as one could suggest that the last thing we need is a return to the inflexible, conservative mindset produced by traditional apprenticeships. But we do need these skills, albeit tied to innovative, reflective thinking, but how do you keep such people at the operational level in a council DSO or contractor, given the rates of pay and the low levels of kudos? A maintenance gardener is paid about the same as a person who fills in holes in a tarmac road, yet the complexity of the task is orders of magnitude more complex. Most horticultural staff are trained in the county college system, usually located in some rural idyll removed from the realities of the urban landscape. They learn about how to maintain vegetation, etc., under benign garden conditions, not the often socially and biological hostile conditions prevailing in parks and urban greenspace. This mismatch of skills, attitudes and location in which practice takes place needs a fundamental re-think.

  Parallels can be drawn here with the nursing situation in the health service, how does one preserve core practice skills and at the same time implant the mindset of the reflective practitioner?

LACK OF FUNDED RESEARCH IN PUBLIC PARKS

  Dedicated funding for research that will inform practice in public park management and design essentially does not exist in Britain. It is true that from time to time funds are made available through the DoE to investigate specific topics, for example street tree strategies, but such funds are sporadic. With the exception of funds made available to the National Urban Forestry Unit to look at the relative costs of woodlands v mown grass, there has been little funding into research on how to translate the sustainability debate and our Rio commitments into new design and management strategies for public parks? There is research into sustainability via the ESRC at the planning level but there is often a void between planners and what happens on the ground. For example, one strategy to improve sustainability is to convert large areas of mown grass into wildflower meadow but who funds the background research into the specific urban dimensions of this particular problem? NERC has the Urgent Fund supposedly to address these types of issues but only novel science projects have been supported thus far, rather than the applied science necessary to improve management of a critical national asset. The example given is drawn from my own research experience, however similar parallels could be drawn in many other research disciplines that could contribute to better practice in urban park provision and management.

  A clearly focused research base is important not only to inform practice but also to intellectualise the culture of public park and greenspace management in Britain.

Dr James Hitchmough


 
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