Green and pleasant land

21st August 1998 at 01:00
Our public parks are precious and an important marker of our civic values, writes Victoria Neumark.

Do you remember in the Mary Poppins books how the park-keeper would appear at the beginning and the end, ringing his bell at the end of the day to tell everyone to go home because the park was closing? P L Travers cleverly used this symbol of the familiar and benign order of things to frame the creative anarchy Mary Poppins inspired.

But where are the park-keepers of today? Instead of grumbling about with a bell, keeping everything neat and tidy and, by the by, squashing hooliganism and making civilisation safe for young children and their nursemaids, they are rarely to be seen. Reduced in number, they travel around inconspicuously in little vans and wear overalls.

A series of parliamentary acts in the 18th and 19th centuries established Britain's great urban parks as oases of refreshment for the heaving (and largely unwashed) masses of toiling poor. How tragic it seems that as people have become more affluent, the squalor of public spaces has increased. The rich, who in Regency times rode along Rotten Row in Hyde Park or took a turn in St James's, now scarcely even grace a Buckingham Palace garden party.

But parks still draw huge crowds and offer a ready theatre for public events. There's music from Pavarotti and Oasis, All Saints and Pulp. Then there's Gay Pride and Speakers' Corner, striking dockers and dispossessed miners, and perhaps the most massive demonstration of recent times - the spontaneous pilgrimage to Kensington Gardens to lay flowers in memory of Princess Diana.

But have parks been a victim of their own success? The drive to reduce public spending in the early 1980s, the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering and consequent pruning of staff have all conspired to turn cherished public spaces into anonymous green voids.

With a fall in staff numbers, and gardening contracted out to private companies that lack personal commitment or skills, many parks have become scruffy havens for youthful vandals and elderly winos. Then local authorities claim their parks are eyesores that can only be redeemed by private pub and restaurant initiatives.

With the announcement of the first grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund to the Urban Park Programme in December 1996, decades of neglect went into reverse. Urban space as varied as London's Highgate Cemetery, resting place of Karl Marx (which got Pounds 500,000), Glasgow's rundown Municipal Green (more than Pounds 6,500,000) and Carmarthen's historic Aberglasney House and gardens (Pounds 600,000) received massive transfusions of cash, as did many smaller projects. And lottery funding comes with strings - it can support only a certain amount of maintenance and must attract a proportion of other funding.

As children are once more, the government assures us, central to our ideas of civic life, let's hope parks will be fully resourced to support and stimulate the sport, social interaction and visual refreshment they need. A park without children would be dead indeed.

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