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