Toggle menu

In keeping

Nicola Dempsey’s work on place keeping addresses one of the most important issues for the profession.

One of the biggest concerns of the landscape profession at present is to do with the public sector and the loss of skills. This takes several forms. There is the loss of landscape professionals within local authorities and other public bodies, both affecting employment and meaning that there is a reduction in skills among clients. There is the loss of a skilled workforce with an increasing move to outsourcing. And, in parallel to this but not necessarily the same thing, there are the cuts that local authorities are forced to make due to government spending restrictions.

As a result the profession is seriously worried, and correctly, about the long-term maintenance of parks and other open spaces. And while there have been some excellent reports, in particular the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘State of British Parks’ that have looked at the problem and at potential solutions, there is relatively little understanding of what this all means on a detailed level.

How timely then to have an academic such as Nicola Dempsey, a senior lecturer at Sheffield, whose research has focused so much on this area, on ‘place keeping’. Although Nicola’s role is within the department of landscape architecture, this is not her academic discipline. She brings a wider view and one that is very valuable to the profession.

Having originally specialised in urban tourism, Nicola later took a PhD in the department of architecture at Oxford Brookes, but looking very much at urban planning and urban design. As she puts it, ‘My work spans a number of academic subjects, including sociology, wellbeing, urban design and planning. It was therefore logical that I found a welcome home within the inclusive discipline of landscape architecture.’

She now teaches planning at Sheffield, not in terms of the details of legislation but using techniques such as Lego on giant boards to help students appreciate the larger scale and the relationship between planning and design.

In her research she is currently involved in a project with partners in universities in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, led by Aalborg University in Denmark. This aims to find out to what extent local authorities are contracting out the management of green space, and what the implications are. The other countries are particularly interested in what is happening in the UK, as in many ways they see it as ahead in the process.

Nicola sent out a questionnaire to all the local authorities in England, asking them both about their spending and about the drivers for change and the barriers to change. The drivers to change included items such as ‘to test and benchmark prices’ and ‘to comply with internal political aims’ whereas the barriers included ‘national political aims and priorities’ and ‘lack of experience/ knowledge’. In each case the authority was asked to rate each factor on a scale from one to ten.

The results are still being analysed and authorities have been asked if they would be willing to take part in in-depth case studies.

The aim of the research, as well as comparing practices in the different countries, is to see what impact austerity measures are having, and what the motives are that are driving authorities towards outsourcing. ‘In Norway in particular,’ Nicola said, ‘it is about carrying out tasks that the municipality can no longer do’. The UK has, she says, much more experience of social enterprises, such as Sheffield’s own Green Estate, and of friends’ groups playing a major part.

Nicola has worked in Sheffield for a number of years, looking at friends’ groups and at how they maintain their relationships. ‘It is good to keep a long-term look at how things are working,’ she said. This work has been funded by a variety of sources over the years, and the university is also applying for a grant to set up a network to look at how information can be shared between research and practice.

In terms of the friends’ groups in Sheffield, Nicola is interested to examine concerns that outsourcing may lower the level of professionalism in terms particularly of pruning, and that maintenance will become deskilled. She thinks this is a particular concern as skills are lost from councils so that there are fewer people able to educate or to direct work.

At the turn of the millennium Nicola and colleagues made an evaluation of the green space improvements that were made in the area of Southey Owlerton in Sheffield, originally funded by the Liveability Fund from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. ‘We looked at how the environment affected people’s everyday lives,’ she said. ‘We found that partnership didn’t work as well as expected.’ This she thought was because so much money was being made available that people couldn’t see why they needed to pitch in and help. ‘Then partnership was a buzz word. Now it is a reality.’

As a result of this work, the place keeping group at the university produced a partnership handbook. ‘A lot of our findings were about relationships about improving spaces – about how partnerships and individuals work together. How will knowledge be passed on if skills are lost from local authorities? This work is much more more about people and partnerships than about pure landscape,’ Nicola said. And, as such, is of enormous value to the landscape profession.

Leave a comment

We use cookies to improve the browsing experience for you and others. If you would like to learn more about cookies please view our cookie policy. To accept cookies continue browsing as normal. Continue