Paul Rabbitts    

Park Manager, Parks Historian, Author & Public Speaker


A Personal View on Parks

I attended a parks conference in Birmingham in early September called 'Empowering Parks' organised by the Landscape Institute, the Parks Alliance, MHCLG and the WMPF. A question I was asked while I was there was how do we achieve what we do at Watford Borough Council. For those that don't know but we are a bold and progressive authority but what we do, we do really well. Parks are incredibly important to Watford, to the council, members, officers, contractors and most especially, to our local community. 

We have 12 Green Flags - increased from 3 since 2012; award winning parks; Cassiobury Park one of the top 10 public parks, and most importantly we are investing every years - millions. How? In a nutshell... advocacy, belief, and ambition. 

We have seen the biggest investment in parks in the last 20+ years thanks to the National Lottery, and especially the former Heritage Lottery Fund. Parks are incredibly important, they were born out of the need for recreation, improving health and wellbeing and the moral concerns for the working classes. The Victorians recognised this and the Edwardians followed this through. Into the mid and late twentieth century, we completely lost our way. The early 1990s we seemed to recover our way and organisations such as ILAM, CABE Space, GreenSpace, APSE, and even national government rediscovered that parks were important. I worked in Carlisle and Middlesbrough and looked at Parks teams in Oldham under Steve Smith, Newcastle under Tony McKenna, the Bolton / Brophy partnership, Alan Barber's campaign to see parks restored and rejuvenated, and all this fantastic work going on. We had parks leadership and we had those we looked up to - Steve Smith, Mike Rowan at Tower Hamlets, Stewart Harding and David Lambert, Peter Wilkinson at Bristol, Martin Page in Sheffield and Sue Ireland at Chelmsford. These people knew what they were doing and were those we looked up to. They all recognised the importance of parks... and so do I. 

I have and continue to lecture on parks to whoever will listen to me. They are vital to our wellbeing, our physical and mental health, our climate, our heritage and our lives in general. For the last 20+ years we have re-invented parks and restored many to their former glory thanks to this renaissance. But where exactly are we now? Where are the Mike Rowan's and Steve Smith's and Alan Barber's of the parks world. They have gone, replaced by those in StreetScene Services, Neighbourhood Services and worst of all - directorates of Place. I despair. I totally despair. I was lucky enough last February to visit Istanbul to view their parks with a view that they may enter Green Flag. Whilst Istanbul and Turkey in general have many social and economic challenges, their politicians recognise the value of parks. The budget for parks was the 2nd largest in the Municipality. Their parks were stunning and most of all, they had staff, lots of staff. Each major city park had a park manager, who was respected, and held a position of high authority. Yet we were trying to convince them to enter Green Flag and write Management Plans. The irony was not lost on me. 

Parks do not manage themselves. Parks need staff, they need people with parks skills, they need politicians who get parks and they need a community who love them. The rest will follow. Advocacy, belief and ambition. That's my mantra. We need to get back to basics, look at what history has taught us and stop trying to re-invent the wheel every 20-30 years. Parks Matter, People Matter, Communities Matter, Health Matters. Thats why I do what I do.