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Twelve steps for better parks

By Ciaran Cuffe

Parks are at the heart of our modern lives. They have crucial role to play as we grow older and as we raise our children. They help reduce stress levels, they boost tourism and yet they only receive crumbs of funding. The following recommendations can transform them.

Time for new laws

The Minister for the Environment must introduce twenty-first-century legislation for parks. In doing so he could embed a proper National Landscape Strategy into legislation, update the 1925 Phoenix Park Act, the 1926 Allotments Act and provide a funding framework that would mandate local authorities to provide proper standards of green space and infrastructure close to where people live.

Plan with communities

Some of the best examples of parks in recent years have been drawn up in partnership with local communities. Examples in cities as far apart as Berlin and Galway show that working with local communities is crucial to deliver parks that local residents can be proud of. In recent years the Heritage Council has produced valuable guidance on working in partnership with communities. Councils must now take a leaf out of their book in planning for the future of our parks.

Provide new facilities

Modern parks are characterised by their richness and diversity. From built-in trampolines on footpaths to cafes beside play areas, diversity is the key to attracting visitors. A growing urban and immigrant population living in apartments expect more from our parks. For many people parks are their back garden. Expectations are on the rise, and whether it be barbecue areas or basketball courts it is time for Local Authorities to think innovatively about future park facilities.

Tame the traffic

Increased car ownership and use is putting pressure on our parks. Instead of throwing car parks at the problem we need to use parks to tame the traffic and provide an oasis of calm in noisy cities and towns. Cars must be kept out of parks, and walking and cycling placed at the heart of transport provision.

Tackle dereliction

Pop-up parks can be the answer to dereliction. Granby Park on Dublin’s Dominick Street and the new North King Street Park show what can be done to brighten up spaces that are awaiting development. Local Authorities and the Office of Public Works should bend over backwards to encourage temporary uses for sites that will be built on in the longer term.

Allow children to take risks

Health and safety concerns have led to the creation of antiseptic spaces. Streams are fenced off and lower branches of trees are lopped to prevent tree climbing. Let’s bring back risk to our parks. Let children climb trees or paddle in a stream so that they can experience nature and learn about danger from an early age.

More native species

Let’s think beyond species such as London Planes, Horse Chestnuts and Limes. Irish species such as Birch, Hazels, Native Oaks and Irish Apple trees can add diversity to our streets and parks. More Willows, Mountain Ash and Holly would add seasonal variety and encourage biodiversity.

Design the landscape

Green spaces face competing uses from different users. Landscape Architects and other parks professionals are needed to resolve these conflicts and challenges and work with communities to meet their needs. As Aidan ffrench pointed out in last month’s issue the Netherlands employs a state landscape architect. Design competitions are required to promote excellence in future park provision.

Introduce wilderness

Too many municipal parks are nothing but manicured lawn. It is time to create wilderness areas in our parks that encourage bio-diversity. Such spaces can foster a greater variety of plants and animals, and provide space for children to explore. The can also reduce running costs as mowing is reduced.

Grow your own

Allowing people who live in the city to grow their own is a practical way of empowering communities as resilience becomes necessary in the face of environmental shocks. More allotments and community gardens need to be provided by councils in our urban centres. Working on the land brings people together, builds bonds between neighbours and provides cheap and nutritious food.

Tackle climate change

Green space and water bodies have a crucial role to play in tackling the challenges of a warming world. Whether it be learning from the Dutch and their policy of ‘giving space for the river’, or planting urban forests to sequester carbon, parks have a crucial role to play. New policies on Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems mandate the provision of green space soakaways for storm waters. Such ideas need to be adopted countrywide.

Provide staff

Only a handful of our Local Authorities have Parks Departments, and they struggle with the resources provided. Parks must be a political priority and the recruitment embargo needs to be repealed. If the political will is there, parks are imaginative pathways back to employment that improve the quality of life for all. •