The green between the grey: CPRE seminar on urban parks

Since I blogged about the first seminar in CPRE’s series on the country and the city we’ve held three more events, all fascinating and all available (the main presentations, at least) on our website.

The second symposium was on urban green space, particularly city parks. Anna Jorgensen recounted the huge influence of Britain’s Victorian parks, with New York’s Central Park, for instance, inspired by Birkenhead Park.

But by the mid-90s there was a sense that urban parks were in crisis. Underfunded and neglected by policy-makers, they were increasingly tatty and even threatening places. Country parks received far more attention, though they were much less accessible and used by fewer people.

Ken Worpole’s presentation was an interesting case study in how a well-timed piece of policy research can bring about change – very reassuring for policy wonks. A number of research reports, including Ken’s 1995 Demos/Comedia report, Park Life (with Liz Greenhalgh) made the case for the social importance of urban parks. In response, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) agreed a major funding programme, and major improvements followed – see Ken’s recent HLF essay, ‘Park Life re-visited’.

But the evening ended on a note of concern. In spite of continuing support from HLF and goodwill from policy makers, Britain’s parks are being hard hit by public spending cuts. One sign of this, easy for anyone to see, is the increase in litter, or rather an increase in the time it takes to clear it up. An article in Sunday’s Observer made this point. It is not available online, but an earlier letter from the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, calling for adequate funding, is.

The case for the importance of urban parks was made so strongly that I asked how we should value them compared with the much emptier green space around towns and cities. Should we simply acknowledge that the Green Belt is much less worthy of protection than a well-used park? I was relieved that most of those attending the seminar, park people rather than countryside people, rejected any such competition for resources. We should aspire to decent parks and decent countryside.

You can listen to Ken and Anna’s presentations here. I will write about the next couple of seminars shortly.

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