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Parklife.

By Aidan J ffrench.

Parks are vital contributors to urban life. But, with notable exceptions (eg Dublin County Council’s acquisitions of demesne landscapes: Marlay, Malahide, Ardgillan etc.), provision and management of parks in Ireland is haphazard, due to inadequate policy, law and resources, and political inertia. In 2006 Minister Roche’s responses to Dáil questions from John Gormley TD [opposite page] revealed clear indifference to parks. A 2007 international congress in Dublin saw Taoiseach Ahern plámás parks managers with platitudes while his government failed to rectify legal problems raised by the 2005 fiasco in Dartmouth Square, Ranelagh. This year’s Irish Planning Institute conference heard its president announce “.. the lessons [of the boom] have been learnt”. What lessons, learnt by whom: what evidence? None was forthcoming. There’s no evidence of lessons learnt in planning for parks.

International practice

Experience abroad demonstrates that successful parks require innovative and progressive State support, vision and dedicated human resources. Meeting these requirements is critical if urban dwellers and tourists are to fully enjoy the proven socio-economic, health and environmental benefits of parks. But Ireland lags significantly behind progressive states (Germany, Malaysia, Scotland, USA) and cities (Berlin, Melbourne). There, parks are political priorities – Chicago’s Mayor Daly spent $500 million on Millennium Park! New York and Greenspace Scotland are exemplary in promoting parks as generators of green-collar jobs, quality of life, optimum health and social solidarity. Investing in parks – policies, law, research, guidance, projects and resources – is a national priority.

Key impediments

Sadly, Ireland still largely relies on an outdated 1980s model of park provision. Key impediments preventing progression to best international practice include:

• a 1987 policy unfit for 21st. century needs (quality, climate change, sustainable drainage, biodiversity);

• a seemingly disengaged Department of Environment (DoE);

• no professional landscape expertise in DoE to champion parks.

Parks are landscapes. Government, after inexcusable delays, published a Draft Landscape Policy in July – flawed and unambitious (nothing about parks) – to meet European Landscape Convention obligations. With no single government department employing any Landscape Architects or parks professionals – not Environment, Arts/Heritage or Tourism/Sport – it’s likely to flounder in civil service inertia. In Malaysia – a poorer state – national policy embraces parks: with a large, landscape department (established 1996), devoted to landscapes and parks. In the Netherlands there’s a state landscape architect!

There’s increasing demand for council services, driven by expectations raised by the property tax. Former minister Hogan promised a range of services: top of the list were parks and amenities. Very few councils employ qualified staff to deliver these services and they are currently prohibited from recruiting.

Resources – some facts and figures

Apart from these impediments – significant in themselves – official statistics on parks are unavailable. With rare exceptions, we don’t know the locations, usefulness, quality, quantity or accessibility of urban parks. Fundamentally, the crux is that parks provision is only a discretionary service (Local Government Act 2001), not mandatory, unlike other services which are a legal imperative. Also …..

• no national laws for urban parks;

• only 8 of 31 local authorities employ qualified staff;

• recruitment embargo severely impacting on capacity to provide / manage parks;

• few training programmes for staff;

• lack of regulation impeding quality delivery: anyone can claim to be a landscape architect or park manger, so there’s no assurance of quality provision. For years, the Irish Landscape Institute has called on successive governments to regulate the profession, notably in its ‘Manifesto for Irish Landscapes’ (General Election 2007).

These impediments have practical consequences: poor quality of life/public health, diminishing property values, compromised tourism benefits and a harsh environment.

The Future?

Dublin’s local authorities and OPW, with An Taisce, will implement a pilot Green Flags Awards Quality Assurance scheme for parks in 2015. Enlightened and demanding communities are taking independent action (eg community gardens, popup parks). And Open Space Strategies (mandatory in the UK) are being adopted .

In the short term, pending more systemic advances, DoE Minister Alan Kelly could immediately introduce two practical reforms: mandatory preparation of OS Strategies and inclusion of parks standards in performance indicators for local authorities. He should also commission design competitions for new parks in regeneration areas (eg Limerick city). Relaxation of the recruitment embargo too would help.



 

MINISTER ROCHE’S 2006 REPLIES TO DáIL QUESTIONS FROM JOHN GORMLEY TD, ON PARKS
QUESTION
John Gormley,TD
201. Please indicate:
• the number of local authority parks or parks and landscape services departments that are staffed with professionally qualified landscape horticulturists, landscape architects or landscape managers;
• the local authorities which run such departments; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34988/06]
REPLY
Dick Roche, Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government:
The information requested on the number of local authority parks or park departments in local authorities is not available in my Department, and staffing returns received from local authorities do not contain the classification of employees referred to in the Question. It is a matter for the manager of each local authority, under section 159 of the Local Government Act 2001, to make such staffing and organizational arrangements as may be necessary for the purposes of carrying out the functions of the local authorities for which he or she is responsible.
FURTHER QUESTIONS
John Gormley, TD
202. Mr Gormley asked the Minister the Ministerial directives, strategies or policies, his Department has issued in relation to the planning, design and management of green spaces and parks during the current Government’s term of office; if guidelines or directives to county managers in respect of parks or open spaces matters have been issued; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34989/06]
203. Mr Gormley asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if there is a unit or permanent staff in his Department responsible for policy development for parks and green spaces. [34990/06]
204. Mr Gormley asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if his Department provides specific, ring-fenced financial supports for the capital development of parks or green space infrastructure at local Government level. [34991/06]
205. Mr Gormley asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if there is a statutory basis to the provision of green spaces and parks, not including the planning codes; and if there is a duty on local authorities to provide parks. [34992/06]
206. Mr Gormley asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if, in view of the recent situation in an area (details supplied: Dartmouth Square, Ranelagh) in Dublin 6, he is preparing legislation for the protection, planning, design and management of green spaces and parks. [34993/06]
NOTE that questions 203 and 206 were not answered.
REPLIES
Dick Roche, Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government:
I propose to take Questions Nos. 202 to 206, inclusive, together. 205. Section 67 and Schedule 13 of the Local Government Act, 2001 empower local authorities to take such measures, engage in such activities or do such things (including the incurring of expenditure) as they consider necessary to promote the interests of the local community. This includes general recreational and leisure activities such as the provision of parks, gardens and open spaces. The exercise of these powers is a matter for individual authorities. I have no proposals to amend the legislation to alter discretionary functions which are appropriately located at local authority level. 204. While there is no specific provision in my Department’s Vote for the funding of local authority parks and open spaces, my Department provides significant financial support to local authorities through the Local Government Fund, which is usable at the discretion of the authority. The provision of open spaces and amenity areas in local authority housing schemes is also a matter for the individual housing authorities in the first instance. Certain facilities of this kind may be funded from my Department’s capital allocations where the work is undertaken in conjunction with the provision of new local authority housing or the refurbishment of existing housing under regeneration/remedial measures. 202. To assist local authorities in discharging their functions, my Department, in 1987, issued A Parks Policy for Local Authorities which outlined a national policy for the provision, development, administration and maintenance of a graded system of parks, open spaces and outdoor recreation areas by local authorities. Guidance in relation to the provision of open space and other amenities in social housing projects is also contained in my Department’s Social Housing Guidelines – Design Guidelines published in 1999. In addition, Guidelines for Planning Authorities on Residential Density were published in 1999. The Guidelines, inter alia, address issues such as the criteria to be taken into account for higher densities including the provision of social and community facilities, pedestrian and cycle linkages and the need to address the needs of children and elderly people. The Guidelines also focus on the need to place a greater emphasis on the quality of open space including spaces suitable for children’s play and passive amenity. These guidelines are currently being reviewed and updated to take account of changing population and settlement patterns and the extensive experience built up since the introduction of the 1999 guidelines. In April 2006, my Department published for public consultation Draft Guidelines on Development Plans for Planning Authorities. The Draft Guidelines highlight the requirements regarding recreation and amenities, under the Planning and Development Act 2000 to which local authorities must have regard in preparing their development plans. These include objectives for: the preservation, improvement and extension of amenities and recreational amenities; and the provision of public open space and recreation space including space/places for children to play. It is intended to finalise these guidelines shortly.