Empty pockets

Paley Park, New York City, via Wikimedia CommonsTo round off a year of thoroughly mixed messages on the value of parks, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) launched the “ambitious programme of pocket parks” promised in the 2015 general election manifesto, making £1.5m available to fund up to 100 pocket parks across England. Working out at an underwhelming £15k per park, I’m not sure whose definition of ‘ambitious’ this is.

A grant of up to £10k can be made for capital works, with up to £5k to pay for the professional services of the landscape architects, garden designers, arboriculturalists and others on whose expertise a well-planned space depends. Applying for a grant couldn’t be simpler. All that was needed was for a group within an officially recognised area of high urban deprivation to decide on a site, form a constitution, obtain the local authority’s approval to develop the site, consult with the community and local partners, survey and plan the site, secure match funding, and produce a sustainability plan. A whole month was allowed for this, so no rush. If given a grant, the site then just needs to be put forward for Local Greenspace Designation and be listed as an asset of community value in 2016, and achieve the Green Flag Community Award in 2017. What could be simpler?

Originating in New York City in the 1960s as a respite from the concrete jungle, the pocket park popularised the idea of the urban mini-oasis. The DCLG seems keen to sell us a bit of the American Dream with this initiative; as their press release gushes: “A slice of the Big Apple coming to a neighbourhood near you … some of England’s most unloved spaces will be transformed into Manhattan-style ‘pocket parks’… “, citing New York’s renowned Paley Park as an example. Alas for the fly-tipping site in Knowsley or the derelict plot in Hartlepool hoping to achieve similar levels of Manhattan sophistication, Paley Park cost $1m to create initially and was renovated at a cost of $700k in 1999 – and although a public space, it’s privately owned and financed by a private trust in perpetuity. It’s certainly not a space that could have been created through the DCLG’s programme. While there’s nothing wrong with encouraging community groups to set their design aspirations high, no-one is going to create a Paley Park in four weeks with £10,000.

I’m not against pocket parks. We can’t have too many parks – the more urban greening the better, and small spaces can achieve great things, especially in deprived areas. And I’m not against giving local people the power to plan the spaces that they want, that work for them – I’m all for it, and I have nothing but admiration for anyone who is so determined to improve their neighbourhood that they will undertake the DCLG’s hideous bureaucratic obstacle course to apply for a grant. But in the context of massive local authority cuts, which have fallen so heavily on parks and green spaces, not to mention the creeping corporatisation of the public realm, this looks like a tasteless PR gimmick.

The DCLG sees these spaces as somewhere where people can ‘escape the hustle and bustle of the urban streets’. Maybe we should be looking at more radical ways to reduce that ‘hustle and bustle’, for a start. Little patches of green that serve an immediate neighbourhood are all well and good, but where’s the long-term thinking? A small space can quickly become a no-go area if it’s not well designed, properly maintained and funded with the future in mind, none of which seems to be provided for in this programme. Are pocket parks on the cheap really what’s needed?

A version of this article appeared in Pro Landscaper magazine January 2016