INTERVIEW: Public parks reviver

As a champion of urban public areas, Julia Thrift wants the government to recognise that green space can improve local communities' quality of life, reports Rosie Niven.

Everybody knows of a neglected park with vandalised play equipment somewhere close to their home. But with an estimated £1.3 billion of public investment in parks lost since 1979, it is hardly surprising that many of the UK's open spaces are in such a rundown state.

This alarming statistic, along with others revealed in a damning report last year, prompted the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) to establish a body dedicated to championing urban public spaces.

The result of this move was CABE Space. Earlier this year, Julia Thrift was appointed as its director. Her job is to ensure that all the UK's town and city parks and public spaces help to improve the quality of life of their users. She says that political realities for local government often mean that parks and open spaces are overlooked.

"Maintaining parks is not a statutory service," explains Thrift. "Local authorities have to collect household waste but they don't have to make sure that their green spaces are well maintained. So budgets have been cut here and there for the past 20 years."

At national level, there are other difficulties in ensuring that green spaces remain high on the political agenda. Thrift points out that open space does not fit neatly into the remit of any single government department.

But she adds that it is a "positive step" that a cross-governmental approach is now being adopted, with all ministers responsible for open spaces meeting regularly to discuss the issue.

Thrift joined CABE Space after five years at the Civic Trust, where she ran its awards programme. She admits that before then, she had no professional experience of parks. But after working on the Green Flag awards she became interested in the issues facing people who run parks and their efforts to improve them.

After more than a decade working as a journalist specialising in architecture and design, she decided to leave the profession in 1998. Her decision was partly prompted by her desire to work as part of a team once again after many years freelancing. But she also reveals that after writing about architecture for so long, she wanted to be more hands-on.

Thrift is optimistic that providing quality open spaces will become even more crucial in the current planning climate. "Parks are particularly important as we attempt to build more high-density housing," she maintains. "If you look at the social housing of the 1960s that failed, it wasn't the quality of the housing that was bad but the spaces around them."

But while creating parks can be difficult, she contends that maintenance is an even bigger headache. "It is no good creating an open space if you cannot maintain it," she stresses. "That's the difference between a park and a building. With a building, you can leave it alone for five years. The issue of maintenance is much more urgent with parks. A park could be fine on Monday but by Friday it could be full of litter and be off-putting to people."

Thrift argues that there should be a rethink on how we use parks. "We have got some fantastic Victorian parks and it is wonderful that they are being restored," she concedes. "But we need to start thinking about the parks of the future. Bandstands became obsolete when radios were invested. Parks of the future will need to reflect our changing lifestyles."

Future parks should meet the needs of the community in more imaginative ways, she insists. Interesting developments that she has seen overseas include the use of "zoning" in the USA, which confines a particular activity such as dog-walking to a particular time so that other users are not affected.

She would also like to see more thought go into how parks are used in the evening. "As a country, we are increasingly going out in the evening," she notes. "There is no reason why parks should be locked up at 5pm. No-one wants to walk through a dark park on their own, but if it is well-lit and full of people, it could be a good route."

Improving staffing and skills in parks would help them to meet the needs of their users, Thrift argues. While there has been a traditional emphasis on horticulture, she points out that skills such as marketing have a role in maintaining a park. She would also like to see a review of staffing arrangements at weekends, when parks are most likely to be visited.

"On a Sunday afternoon, there could be literally thousands of people in the park but no staff to run the cafe," says Thrift. "Can you think of any other building that would not be staffed at its peak times?"

CABE Space's recent Wasted Spaces campaign highlighted the problem of eyesore and derelict sites. Members of the public were encouraged to nominate sites or property assets going to waste or detracting from their local environment. The campaign was not without its controversy when the Town Moor, one of Newcastle's most treasured pieces of parkland, was nominated.

But Thrift claims that while many disagreed with this nomination, it should still be welcomed because it promotes discussion. "It shows how one person's wasted space is another person's moor or biodiversity site," she says.

As well as championing green spaces, CABE Space will also disseminate good practice and carry out research projects. One of its first moves was to recruit 50 people to work with local authorities to create green space strategies, which Thrift claims can promote closer working between parks and planning departments. It also plans to produce a manifesto to promote improvements to public spaces.

Its first piece of research will be a study into the economic value of green spaces. Thrift reveals that it will look at how they can benefit an area by attracting businesses, encouraging tourism and stimulating the housing market. "We are keen to demonstrate how parks and green spaces are a fantastic resource," she explains.

Open spaces offer something for people of all ages, she declares. But the group that she feels benefits the most from parks are the young, whether it is babies in prams or teenagers trying to find a place to escape from their parents.

Thrift herself has happy memories of feeding the ducks in the park as a child and thinks that experiencing open spaces is an essential part of growing up. "For many children, parks often provide their first experience of meeting people outside their family and an introduction to wildlife," she says. "They may not be exotic, but they are very important."

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CAREER DETAILS

Age: 38.

Family: Single.

Education: BA (Hons) in philosophy, University College of London.

Career: News editor, Direction, 1988-90; freelance journalist

specialising in architecture and design, 1990-98; awards manager, Civic

Trust, 1998-2001; head of programmes, Civic Trust, 2001-03; director,

CABE Space, 2003 to date.

Interests: Contemporary art.

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