‘National Review of Research Priorities for Parks’

This substantial review and the resulting report by Dr Katy Layton-Jones was commissioned by English Heritage and hosted by Park Roots CiC, Birkenhead Park, Wirral. The project brought together a range of consultees from Natural England, Green Space Scotland, GreenSpace, Historic Scotland, Heritage Lottery Fund,  local authorities, CiCs, universities, and trusts. The final report informed the National Heritage Protection Plan (NHPP) in 2015.

Download the report here

Extract from the executive summary:

In the fields of urban planning and landscape design, there are few areas in which Britain has made so significant an international contribution than urban parks and public open spaces. As the world’s first industrialised nation, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Britain, and England in particular, experienced rapid urbanisation and its attendant consequences of air pollution, public health crises and psychological detachment from the natural world. As urbanisation redefined the economic, social and environmental character of industrial Britain, the design and designation of public urban greenspace emerged as important reparation for the privatisation of the landscape and the concretion of townscapes. As access to common land decreased and agricultural hinterlands eroded further from town centres, urban parks and gardens became nature’s urban representative. Today, 80% of Britons live in urban areas and across the country public parks provide an essential and truly inclusive resource, available to all regardless of their economic status, ethnicity, age or gender. With almost 90% of the population using and valuing parks and greenspace, their influence upon our quality of life is incontrovertible (CABESpace, 2010f, 4). In addition, since the triumphs of the public parks movement of the mid-nineteenth century, the recognised function of such landscapes has broadened from the provision of recreation, clean air, and diversion for local residents to incorporate larger national and international environmental agendas. As governments seek affordable and sustainable means to counteract the effects of climate change, public parks have been identified as a means of moderating the artificially high temperatures created by urban heat islands and as ‘sinks’ for significant levels of carbon dioxide. (United States Environmental Protection Agency, Reducing Urban Heat Islands: compendium of strategies (2008). Environment Agency, Using Science to Create a Better Place: the social impact of heat waves (2007) esp. table 6.1: Association between urban planning/management policy and urban climate, 28). Yet, even as the social and environmental significance of greenspace is more widely recognised, so the quality and quantity available is under threat…Compounding the challenge posed by the deteriorating physical condition of these historical assets, are prevalent misconceptions regarding the fitness for purpose of their historical design and an under-appreciation of the public’s awareness of, and admiration for, their historical character. Perhaps understandably, the fragile and declining condition of so many historical landscapes has given rise to the common argument that historical parks can no longer meet the needs of modern communities. The failings of successive low-budget management strategies have been mistaken for the failings of the historic landscapes themselves. In some instances this view has been born of a sincere desire to enhance existing parks, but in other cases it has been embraced as a means of justifying and expediting the re-designation, commercialisation, and diminution of historical designed landscapes. The myth that historical parks are failing our communities has become so endemic that rather than focusing on the protection and celebration of historically-significant landscapes, local authorities often presume that the only viable strategy to ensure the future of parks is to compromise their historical integrity. Yet, as Peter Neal has observed, the principle of parks as ‘surrogate countryside for urban communities’ is as valid today as at the time of their creation (Neal, 2012, 1).

This report represents over 9 months of discrete research in addition to the author’s existing expertise and experience in the sector. It provides a précis of recent research in the field of urban parks, designed landscapes and open spaces. Rather than attempting to evaluate the myriad management strategies employed in parks over the past two centuries, it focuses on research into the history and historical context of these sites. This approach was adopted advisedly. Communities and park managers have endured decades of uncertainty regarding their local parks and many have lost battles to protect historic green spaces from development, vandalism and decline; suspicion and scepticism are common sentiments among communities, local authorities, and even professional bodies. While the historical significance of these landscapes is being challenged, the need for English Heritage to research the history and reassert the historical and contemporary significance of urban parks and designed landscapes is pressing. Only by returning to the history of urban parks and open spaces can English Heritage develop a reputable and trusted approach to their protection.’

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