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The origins, decline and modern renaissance of our urban parks
Mondays 9.00-9.30pm 8 to 22 March 2004

Our town parks are some of the finest in the world and cherished by all of us. But since their creation in the 19th century, they have fallen on hard times and are struggling to regain their past glory. Julian Pettifer explores the challenges which now face them


Our town parks are where most of us have our first contact with wildlife, where we arranged childhood picnics, fed the ducks on the lake and maybe even had our first encounter with romance! For many city dwellers they are a vital green lung, an escape from traffic noise and a way of shedding the stress of the working day. We may sometimes take them for granted, but nearly 70% of us use a park and collectively we make a staggering 2.5 billion visits to parks every year.

Programme 1

Julian Pettifer explores the chequered history of our urban parks, from their Victorian heyday through the post war decline to the beginnings of a renaissance in the 21st century. Not all parks were created with the public in mind. St James’ Park in central London was once a boggy hunting ground for kings and nobleman and became a Royal Park in 1532; Admission was strictly for nobility and it wasn’t until nearly three centuries later that the public were allowed in.

Victorian parks, on the other hand, were created specifically for people living in the rapidly expanding cities. The first, Birkenhead Park, designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, was so successful that it was used as inspiration for Central Park in New York.

Listen again Listen again to Programme 1

Programme 2

In their heyday, urban parks were bustling with activity and a focal point for major public events such as coronations. But from the Second world War onwards, a series of events combined to lay them low. Railings were sequestered for the War Effort, leading to loss of status for parks.

Local government re-organisation in the 1970s favoured the new Leisure Services Departments with their preference for sports halls and leisure centres. Compulsory Competitive Tendering introduced in 1990, required councils to accept the lowest bid for maintenance works and so parks lost their dedicated staff to be replaced by mobile gangs of contractors. With the loss of a “parky”, vandalism increased and the public stayed away.

Julian explores the effects of neglect on our parks, the loss of colourful bedding displays and horticultural skills and the decline of park furniture such as bandstands. But he also charts the beginnings of a renaissance and meets the communities which refuse to let their local parks fade away. In Huddersfield, the magnificent Beaumont Park with its ornate buildings, steep cliffs and mature woodlands, is being lovingly restored by neighbours. In Runcorn, campaigners at Rock Park are helping the council to lever in funding which wouldn’t usually be available.

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Programme 3

The final programme in this series explores the way forward for our parks. There is still no statutory duty on local authorities to provide parks, but now that they are being taken seriously for social reasons, their landscape and wildlife benefits and for the part they can play in the nation’s health. Parks are being integrated into the urban landscape and a new challenge for urban greenspace is the Thames Gateway Project which puts parks and open spaces mainstage.

Julian hears from Chris Baines, a campaigner for urban greenspace, and Yvette Cooper MP, the minister with responsibility for regeneration of our parks.

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