The ‘neat and tidy’ landscapes of housing areas, this is what we have come to expect from our green spaces.


Where I grew up in Newcastle, my secondary school was located 
next to a large social housing estate. It was well-furnished with 
green spaces (i.e. mown grass) and, from my teenagers perspective,
looked ‘very nice’ (i.e. neat and tidy). When my careers teacher 
informed that as a Landscape Architect I too could create such 
pleasant environments I jumped at the chance and so started the 
career of an optimistic (and naïve) landscape architect with a dream
to make the world, or at least Newcastle, a better place. 

After a stint in private practice, designing planting schemes for 
Sellafield (nuclear) and Drax (coal fired) power stations - not quite 
what I had in mind – I landed a job for a South Yorkshire Council as a
project office on the new City Challenge programme – a EU funded 
initiative aimed at raising the quality of life of residents of deprived 
inner city areas. Here, finally I could realise my ambitions and 
transform the lives of people through my green space designs. I 
was to work with local residents to ‘enable environmental 
improvements through community engagement’. 

I can pin-point the day I started to realise that something was going badly wrong. 


I can pinpoint the day I started to realise that something was going 
badly wrong. The community showed us their local green space and
said ‘What’s the point? You (the Council) came a few years ago and 
together we improved our green space – now look at it’. The sad, 
littered, uncared for ‘green-space’ was evidence enough. What was 
happening here - why weren’t the community taking responsibility? 
Had the ‘wrong’ community members been involved? Had they not 
been ‘empowered’ enough? What was certain, was that the 
community did not want to go through the process again.

Money thrown at spaces, communities engaged, but then abandoned when funding runs out. 


Evaluation is needed. Is the park delivering what communities and designers expected? 

Since then I have worked on many EU and lottery-funded green 
space improvement projects and many times the story has been the
same. Local people were engaged and ‘empowered’, but then 
abandoned when the funding runs out and the project officer leaves.
Involvement and improvements are driven by short-term funding 
and tend to have unrealistic deadlines for spend. The implications 
for long-term management are ignored, or at best a 
‘fingers-crossed’ approach is taken that management will happen, in
the excitement and haste of renewal and creation.

And now the last 20 (much needed) years of these green space 
improvement projects are coming back to haunt us. Decreasing 
Council budgets are placing a great strain on green space 
management. Quality has been improved, management 
requirements increased and expectations have been raised. Local 
Authorities are looking to partners to help take the strain – after all 
these years of community-led design to engender ‘ownership’ and build capacity are they, the community, ready? Or are there other 
partners out there who can help. What will that mean in terms of 
accountability and the idea of public spaces delivering a ‘public 
good’? When we started our EU MP4 project one of our key aims 
was to identify good examples of partnership approaches to the 
long-term management of open spaces. In reality, they were few 
and far between.

A new ‘place-keeping’ approach? Community garden in Vancouver.



So, many years on, my journey has taken me to ‘place-keeping’, the 
idea that the sustainable, on-going, management of open spaces 
should be the starting point for any open space development. 
Place-keeping reveals that open space management is complex. It 
embodies policy, governance and partnership working, tries to 
understand the role of funding and links open space design with 
management. Perhaps most overlooked, it requires evaluation so 
that management is responsive, that we learn lessons and do not 
repeat mistakes.

After all my years in practice, for me, one thing is clear. We need to 
get everyone talking about place-keeping, before we think about the
development, design and planning of open space.


AuthorMel Burton