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Does heritage suit our needs?

WITH PHIL GILL, JAMES LORD & ANDREW TAYLOR
We have fine historic parks in this country, and thankfully there is still money available for their restoration. But is the interest in heritage restricting our ability to meet contemporary needs? A client and a landscape architect argue that respecting heritage is compatible with satisfying contemporary needs, and an architect who has recently designed a park in Birmingham puts the case for the value that new parks can offer.
Phil Gill

PHIL GILL

Phil Gill
Leisure and green spaces manager, Streetpride, Environment and Development Services, Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council

The ‘heritage park’ brand is increasingly in use around the country, but what should we expect from such a classification? Does it imply a fossilised landscape, where any visible evidence of life in the twentieth century is kept at bay? Of course, there is a place for such an approach, as evidenced by the many people who enjoy visiting properties looked after by the National Trust. However, when it comes to managing and restoring a historic public park, is such a static view of heritage appropriate, or even possible?

These questions arose in Rotherham around ten years ago with the development of plans to breathe new life into the town’s second oldest public park. Clifton Park’s landscape had originally been laid out more than a century before its public opening in 1891. Clifton House, now a museum, and surrounding estate was developed for Joshua Walker, owner of a local iron and steel works, in 1784.

From the outset, the vision for the restoration of Clifton Park was driven by the local community, including an active Friends Group. The knowledge and experience of these people brought a richness of meaning to the park. This is heritage, continually evolving and multidimensional, reflecting the diversity of the people who use the park. The notion that a restoration project would just be about preservation of historic features never really took hold; it also called for improvement and innovation to make the park relevant and accessible to the people it serves now and in the future.

Funding for the project came from the ‘Parks for People’ programme run by HLF and BIG Lottery Fund whose aims were aligned perfectly to our preferred approach. With LDA Design as lead consultant, we pursued everything from painstaking conservation to bold contemporary design, reflecting the wide range of values local people placed on different features within the park.

For example, careful surgery was undertaken on the emblematic bandstand to reveal and then treat severe corrosion of its internal steel frame. The main gates to the park, sadly removed and mislaid during World War II, were recreated based on analysis of old photographs. Elsewhere, a sunken garden dating from the early twentieth century was completely removed, partly to recreate the original setting of Clifton House, but also because of the unsavoury reputation it had gained amongst park users.

Two main elements of the project have reinvented historic features of the park to provide striking modern settings for popular activities. The new walled garden harks back to when the park and house, in private ownership, had a kitchen garden. This now facilitates increased community involvement in the life of the park, including growing of flowers, fruit and vegetables. The water splash continues a long tradition of water play in the park,replacing a paddling pool that dated back to 1939 which itself replaced ornamental ponds. Both are designed with the needs and aspirations of people today in mind, and employ modern technology to reduce running costs and environmental impacts.

Heritage is a dynamic force that has guided us in the restoration of Clifton Park. Public reaction to the completed scheme is a measure of the success of this approach. They have welcomed the new whilst cherishing the old. We hope to have both preserved and enriched the park’s heritage for future generations.
James Lord

JAMES LORD

James Lord 
Director of landscape design, HTA

The English landscape is the product of thousands of years of continuous occupation. One layer is overlaid on another as each generation adapts a space to suit its own needs. This is shown at Kenwood where Repton’s landscape incorporates ancient boundary oaks and a Saxon field pattern. This formerly private park is now part of a public landscape, resulting in different demands being placed upon it and pressure from visitor numbers. Similarly, William III’s Privy Garden at Hampton Court overlies the remains of an earlier Tudor hunting ground.

At what point does a landscape become frozen in time? Fundamental to our profession is an understanding of the historic significance and sensitivity of not only the heritage of the site but all existing and future identities of the landscape. Good design must be informed by an understanding of our past and our future.

When the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens lists a space as being of special historic interest this does not amount to a decree that the public realm is to be frozen for eternity. The hope is that listing sites will increase awareness of their value and encourage those who own them, or who have a part to play in their protection, to treat the sites with due care, whether this is a question of carrying out appropriate maintenance or of making changes to the site. So it is certainly envisaged that our system of statutory protection can entertain the possibility of adaptation to the changing needs of society as dictated by constant evolution of culture.

How are we to predict how communities, owners and operators will use a public open space? What pressures, political, social and environmental, will come to influence it? Public parks and open spaces must remain flexible, adaptable and accessible, with democracy of use at their core. I would hope that the new spaces we are designing now will be subject to significant change, adaptation, and hopefully improvement. That is the natural cycle.

I’d say that the purpose of the statutory system is to force decision-makers and designers to weigh appropriately the requirement to create spaces that meet contemporary needs against the importance of society properly recognising the significance of the past. It is certainly true that much has been lost which we now sadly miss because this balance was not given due consideration. But it is also true that much-needed change and enhancement of open space is inhibited by the hidebound misapplication of the heritage principle being used to block that which is good.

At HTA we like to think we are able to discern, celebrate and enhance the best of the past in the heritage parks where we have worked. Our design approach is directed at setting historic features in a context which displays them to their best advantage but at the same time works well for contemporary users, exploiting the ‘layers in the landscape’ to best effect. The approach needs to be thoughtful and sensitive; the solutions simple, legible and robust.
Andrew Taylor

ANDREW TAYLOR

Andrew Taylor
Co-founder of architect Patel Taylor

There’s great merit in both the restoration of heritage parks and the creation of new parks. Existing parks, particularly in urban locations, can offer a scale of open spaces that could not be replicated now due to land prices and pressure on development.

These great assets should certainly receive investment to make them as good as possible for the public. New parks offer different opportunities. Obviously, they have the potential for great impact, particularly on brownfield sites where there is a dramatic change.

Given the cost of land and potential profits from other forms of development, the site selection for new parks has to be closely linked with strategic urban plans and regeneration, often in conjunction with a wider green infrastructure strategy.

Eastside City Park in Birmingham, a project we have very recently completed, is an example of this approach. The new Eastside Quarter is part of Birmingham’s Big City Plan, and the park is intended to function as the principal route into the quarter, as a focal point, and as a catalyst for future development and the creation of economic and social value.

Clearly, this project was about initiating a piece of the city, so we first approached it from an urban design point of view. To make the park work as a piece of infrastructure, it was vital that legible links to the city’s existing roads, pedestrian routes and public transport systems were in place, along with a strategy for pedestrian movement through the park to the surrounding buildings, both existing and future developments.

The next challenge was to bring this framework to life with the design of the hard and soft landscape. The design had to be robust enough to stand alone while it awaits its future built context, whilst being able to accommodate the changing interfaces and use patterns these developments will bring.

In many ways, new parks do allow more freedom in their design than the restoration of heritage parks, but they are far from being blank canvasses. The importance of urban design and infrastructure has been mentioned, but other factors include the site’s history. On the formerly industrial Eastside site, many of the buildings were demolished to make way for the new quarter, but key features were retained, such as the grade I listed Curzon Street Station, various grade II listed buildings, and a small existing park which is also a burial ground. These features are directly adjacent to the park, and appropriate settings had to be created. They undoubtedly have added to the richness of the final outcome.

Within the quarter, but slightly further from the park is the Digbeth Branch Canal. Birmingham has an extensive canal system, which in places has been reintegrated to the public realm. An earlier iteration of the park scheme was larger, and made a direct connection to the canal. The design included extensive water features, with a narrative of flowing water, locks and a natural filtration system. This however, relied on Big Lottery funding, which did not materialise, and sadly the connection to the canal was lost.

In summary, new parks do have some advantages over heritage projects. They create additional public space and green infrastructure, and encourage regeneration. They can also provide opportunities for references and narratives about the previous uses of the sites, but above all, they make spaces and landscapes that members of the public can enjoy, both individually and collectively.

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