At lunchtime, in Springfield Park in inner-city Hackney, pupils from the nearby Skinner's Company School for Girls are enjoying vivid pink lollies. Best friends Millicent Bowes and Ezra Sevim, both 14, come to the park every day. "We come for the environment, the peace, the sunshine," says Millicent. "In school it's really noisy and you're hardly allowed to do anything. Here you can feel relaxed."
What improvements do they think this park needs? "Nothing, really." On reflection, they concede that more water fountains would be useful. What about play equipment for their age group? "We don't need anything to play with. Only boys."
The authors of a new report on urban parks, produced by the think-tank Demos and urban consultants Comedia, are rather more critical. "Is the 'keeper-less park', along with the unstaffed railway station, the unsupervised playground and the deserted town-centre at night, going to become another ghost zone of modern Britain?" ask the authors of Park Life.
Springfield Park in north-east London has recently been revitalised by the opening of a cafe in its previously boarded-up mansion house. The cafe offers not only refreshments to park users but a feeling of security use of the park has greatly increased by everybody, from school parties to pensioners.
On a sunny day, towards the end of term, Phil Goss, deputy head of Ickburgh School for children with severe learning difficulties, is accompanying a party of eight, with another teacher. "We come here occasionally," he says. "It gives our students a chance to experience a very pleasant natural environment, and practise social skills in a different context." What do they think this park needs? Right now, someone who can locate the key to the locked disabled lavatory. "Write that down," says Masum, 15.
Many urban parks - arguably the most important resource available to inner-city schools - are falling into decline. The fashion in the Seventies and Eighties for indoor leisure facilities meant councils were less likely to make imaginative improvements in parks. Many traditionally outdoor sports - such as cricket and bowls - moved indoors or went "floodlit".
"In the Victorian era, parks were at the forefront of urban development, " say Park Life authors Liz Greenhalgh and Ken Worpole. "Today they are often an after-thought, at the bottom of the political agenda."
The introduction in 1990 of compulsory competitive tendering - whereby councils had to contract out care of parks - hastened the decline of these Cinderellas of the leisure industry. The widespread loss of park-keepers and permanent gardeners - who acted, by their very presence, as informal guards - has paved the way for an increase in vandalism. Mobile teams of maintenance men in a hurry, while they may do a good job on the flower beds, have proved not to have the same inhibiting effect on those who would use the parks for "sex, drugs and rock and roll", as Kate Beecroft, the leader of Liverpool's urban park rangers, puts it.
But savings made through contracting out have not been put back into parks on the whole. "It's the lament of park managers up and down the country," says Peter Joyce, chief landscape officer at the London borough of Bromley. "The money saved goes back into the central pot." Local authorities are under no statutory duty to maintain parks, and for councils forced to cut spending, they have provided a soft target. Park spending has been reduced by some Pounds 50 to Pounds 60 million per year, nationally, in the past five years.
But the National Heritage Memorial Fund, one of five distributors of National Lottery money, has recently announced that it will make the rescue of urban parks a priority. With this powerful stimulus, an overdue and sometimes overheated debate has broken out about exactly what form of regeneration parks now need. Pressure groups campaigning for the preservation and improvement of parks fall into three main lobbies - ecology, conservation and sports.
The sports lobby, with its emphasis on pitches for team games, stands accused of wanting "green deserts" - expanses of under-used mown grass, devoid of interest or wildlife. The conservationists are charged with focusing on Victorian fixtures and fittings, such as wrought iron lamp posts and benches, without considering the need to appeal to a broad range of park users.
The ecologists are characterised as wanting only semi-wild habitats, inimical to the parks' historical functions. "Nobody's got an interesting paradigm of how parks might improve," says Ken Worpole.
What has not clearly emerged is an "education lobby". Perhaps it needs to. One consensus is that if parks are for anybody, they are first and foremost for children. But with the difficulties of taking children outside schools at all, parks need to offer clear draws to teachers if they are to make much use of them.
Classic local authority thinking on providing for children in parks has been somewhat limited, and centred on buying and installing play equipment.
"There's a uniform range of provision for young children," says Wendy Titman, author of the influential Special People, Special Places - which urged schools to make better use of their own grounds. "The bits of equipment, the impact-absorbing surface. It's spread like measles. I would say there's no doubt it would be better to invest in people to work with children in parks - and bring the environment alive - rather than putting in huge quantities of paraphernalia."
A few local authorities are doing just that. Optimistic new thinking on the part of some managers takes the line that by involving schools in parks now, the problem of vandalism may be held in check in the future.
Kate Beecroft says the only way forward is to work with young people and engender some sort of feelings for parks - "to show them how special and magical they are". Her team of 40 rangers accompany school parties on a varied programme of walks and talks in the parks (see box on page 14).
The rangers, formerly "gardeners and gravediggers" who maintained the parks, have received short but intensive training in working with the public, and in researching and conducting tours. Although still acting partly as guards, they have taken to their new educational role with alacrity.
Chris Carus, 31, has been a ranger for 18 months. "A lot of the kids are from deprived areas and absolutely love coming out," he says. "You start with the six and seven-year-olds, and hopefully instill a sense of responsibility. So instead of coming into the park to snap a young tree, they'll come in to plant one."
Liverpool's rangers offer services to adults as well as children. The scope of their activities is impressive - from autumn fruits to art events, cycle rides, bird-watching, plant life, history, orienteering and kite-flying. Most of the topics have been thought up by the rangers themselves. But they are keen to fit in with the requirements of the national curriculum. "We rely on teachers to give us an idea of what they want," says Kate Beecroft. "But when we go into schools, even simple activities like sunflower seed-growing are incredibly popular."
Some local authority staff believe that schools do not value parks sufficiently. "It's a huge resource which schools are not making enough use of," says Peter Joyce. "We have to try and re-educate children in urban areas. They suffer both from sensory overload - from noise, pollution and too many people. And sensory deprivation - because they're deprived of interaction with nature. We're trying to make people aware of what's on their doorstep that they don't have to put children in coaches to get to the countryside."
Recent studies have shown how children's independent access to any kind of outdoor environment is becoming ever-more limited.
Mayer Hillman studied English junior schoolchildren, and found that between 1971 and 1990, the number of activities children undertook on their own outside the home reduced by almost half. In 1971, two-thirds of those who owned bikes were allowed to use them on the roads. Twenty years later, although more had bikes, only a quarter of those surveyed were allowed to cycle on the roads. The onus on schools to get children outdoors increases as their licence to do so on their own decreases.
The first priority may be to improve school grounds, as Wendy Titman suggests. Up to 15 per cent of primary schools have no grounds which are not hard-surfaced, the so-called "black deserts" of Tarmac playgrounds. But many inner city schools have limited space to play with and on. Parks, at their best, can offer a wider range of educational experiences than even the best school wildlife garden.
Outside school grounds, the issue is not the quantity of open space. Britain has a vast acreage of parkland, mainly the legacy of the Victorian passion for the improving outdoors.
"Many neighbourhoods have their quota of deserted parks, notable for their sparse, tired shrubs, their worn grass, their boarded-up, graffiti-covered lavatories," says Hugh Clamp, president of the Landscape Institute. "It is not only the quantity of open space which matters. Quality also counts."
One of the recommendations in the DemosComedia report is that local authorities should let others get involved in the running of some of their green space.
Camley Street Natural Park, behind King's Cross station in central London, provides an interesting example of what an energetic pressure group can do. Funded mainly by the local council, the London Wildlife Trust - with help from volunteers - turned an unlovely two-acre patch of scrub behind the gasworks into an oasis of plant and wildlife.
The site has its own well-equipped classroom, a full-time teacher seconded from Camden Council and specially constructed wooden landings from which large numbers of children can pond-dip.
Local schools can come for half a day; those further afield spend the whole day, on a programme of work defined in advance with teacher Irene Lucas. Camley Street is currently taking bookings for next June.
Ken Worpole suggests providing "school gardens" on urban green space, where children can get their hands dirty and cultivate a sense of ownership of the environment. Parks are also obvious places for nurseries, kindergartens and playgroups, he says.
The term "urban parks" covers a wide variety of environments, from the classic Victorian parks and cemeteries to the more recent - and extremely popular - city farms, ecology gardens and wildlife areas. Their range indicates that there is no single convenient blueprint for local authorities in developing and managing open spaces.
"There is no one goal for urban green spaces," says Wendy Titman. "Except to keep them."
Park Life: Urban Parks and Social Renewal, published by Demos and Comedia costs Pounds 20, inc pp. Copies can be ordered from Comedia, The Round, Bournes Green, Nr Stroud, Glos GL6 7NL or Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4V 6AP
On a sunny Tuesday, ranger Chris Carus is taking a group of children from a Toxteth primary school round Liverpool's grand Calderstones Park. They are hunting "mini-beasts", a recently-discovered species previously known as insects.
At the first stop, by a poplar tree, Chris finds a jumping beetle. The seven-year-olds obediently jump up and down, and he puts the beetle into a white washing-up bowl, against which it stands out well. "Luke! Come and see the beetle. Has everybody seen him?"
The beetle is released, and the 18-strong group moves on to a horse chestnut tree. Chris removes a small plate of bark to reveal a spider."What the spider does is he lays his eggs between these little plates that are nice and warm. Do you like getting into a warm bed, or a cold one?" "Warm," goes up the willing chorus.
In the dappled shade of ancient trees, Chris swishes his washing-up bowl over the daisy-strewn grass.
"Look at that," he says, enthusiasm oozing from every pore. "Look at the life you've got in there." Eighteen heads crowd around the bowl, full of flies and things that move. "Errrrgh!" goes up the cry. "It's a caterpillar."
Class teacher David Corker is enthusiastic about the Rangers service, although he says he has always brought children to the parks in the 20 years he has worked at Windsor School. "It's extra expertise. The visit is more directed so you get more out of it. The rangers know what they're talking about, and get on well with the children." Not many of these children have gardens at home, but the rangers are helping the school establish a wildlife area.
The party arrives at the park's compost heap. Chris Carus invites them to scratch with their feet like birds. While the boys kick leaf mould high into the air, the girls gather fir cones and stuff them into the pockets of their summer dresses. With their magnifying boxes, the children examine a worm, and a stag beetle. "The thing about beetles is their skeleton is on the outside, " Chris Carus confides, reverently.
Then it's on to a mini-beast trap, a sunken plastic tumbler baited with Monster Munch crisps and camouflaged with stones and dirt. The children are entranced. More jumping beetles. And ants. "Luke's found a ladybird! What brilliant eyesight." Samir's found a discarded deodorant aerosol. Karen does 15 cartwheels in a row and stands up dizzy and pleased. The children join hands round a huge beech tree. "Do you think it's a big tree?" "Yes," they scream, but not loudly enough for Chris Carus.