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 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.
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.
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
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.