Rethinking the heritage of parks

+ Designers and planners should think beyond the narrow preservation of heritage to create parks relevant to their users, communities and the current world.

34 million people in the UK regularly visit parks, and 81% say parks are essential to quality of life. But parks are clearly in crisis with budget cuts, loss of staff and many local authorities considering selling off parkland. 

Funding critical to the survival of parks is often tied to specific agendas, like the preservation of heritage features. For many parks this can narrow the scope too much, reducing investment in the park overall as a community asset. An agenda-led approach can also lead to conflicts between different and vital funding streams, in an age where public funding is heavily constrained and where no single grant can meet all of a park’s needs. 

We need to look again at the relationship between a park’s heritage resource, its wider assets and the needs of the communities who use them. By interrogating the meaning and use of a proposal in more detail, earlier, it should be possible to relate it to the most appropriate historic aspects of a place’s evolution, emphasising current community needs as much as conservation of place.  

By rethinking the function of heritage in parks to reflect our changing times we can enable a wider, community and activity-based approach to design. This can make heritage assets more viable, resilient and adaptable to future use patterns set against realistic future funding allocations. It may also spur people to take an interest in, and care for heritage. This would be the next natural development of creative conservation – developing a future historic legacy. 

To achieve this user groups must be identified, their needs and expectations profiled and understood. Difficult questions should be asked: “Is the given feature what the community most needs?” Or “How is the history of the place relevant to you now?” These exercises can often reveal fascinating alternative local histories which might otherwise be missed. 

Once there’s room to re-imagine the ‘park’ the options become wide ranging: areas for sport and fitness, traditional games, children, young people and play, food and drink, re-wilding and nature, building in measures to address the effects of climate change, community development, volunteering, education and learning skills or practical crafts. In these choices a balance must be struck between environmental agendas, the needs of historic buildings and spaces, possible new facilities, sustainable local financial support and other factors. There is also value in challenging the siloed assumptions of funders and maintenance arrangements in both the government and private sectors.

Arup’s work at Parsloes Park in London embodies this approach. The masterplan for the park resolved conflicts between different funding streams, and looks to grow the park’s audience and user groups through revealing the site’s history in ways relevant to modern user needs and interests. By developing a community-based rationale for design and restoration with the client we were able to make sustainable long term choices – vital in an age of public sector funding constraints.

There are a growing number of contemporary precedents. The Metropol Parasol in Seville is a great example of creative thinking about a city-centre space that combines both access to Roman remains with contemporary leisure needs. By combining museum, walkways, farmers’ market and restaurants it draws many city visitors’ interests together, an inspiring modern statement within an ancient city. The proposed transformation of Pier 54 in New York into a floating garden structure (Pier 55) aims to achieve a similar balance of public aims, heritage and new facilities, including an outdoor performance space, overlaid upon the ghost of the old Cunard ocean liner terminal.

We should think beyond the history of places to help shape their future – communities form around shared identities and histories. Forward looking communities are those with a progressive relationship with and response to heritage – conserving the best, interpreting the rest and creating future historic legacies.