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Alan Barber: champion of the people's parks

Article Index

  1. Alan Barber: champion of the people's parks
  2. The decline of public parks
  3. The "transition guy"
  4. Campaigning, consultancy and research
  5. "Great parks make great cities"
  6. Sources and further reading
  7. All Pages


The decline of public parks

In 1971, aged 29, he moved again to become Deputy Parks Manager for Bristol City Council, where he stayed for the next 21 years. Three years later there was a huge upheaval in local government, with the amalgamation of small councils into much bigger authorities and the introduction of corporate management. Parks departments were subsumed into much larger directorates of leisure and recreation, and Alan became Bristol's Parks Manager.

It was during his time at Bristol that Alan began to realise how public parks had been allowed to degenerate since the Second World War. He got to know a number of knowledgeable local people, who helped to instil a growing awareness of the importance of a place's history.

‘I think the dreadful thing, looking back on it, is that I didn't even know there was a decline,' he says. ‘I never knew when I first went to work in Hesketh Park in Southport that it was a Kemp landscape, and that it was grossly overgrown then, so that Kemp would not have recognised it. The park chiefs did things without a moment's regard to the heritage or what they were interfering with.'

Alan believes that a gradual erosion of the parks tradition and chronic under-funding, exacerbated by local government reorganisation in 1974, had led to a situation where people no longer knew what a good park should be like.

‘I could not get together a budget that allowed me to keep parks as they should be. When you find you're arranging concerts in a park which once had a bandstand, and they're on tarmac where the bandstand once stood, you realise that these places have seen better days!'

The irony was that while local authorities were responsible for creating many of the great Victorian and Edwardian parks, they were also largely responsible for their chronic institutionalised neglect.

‘Some of the earliest parks superintendents were very good. In those days, there was so much that was good going on that even the copyists did very good work. The brilliance of people like Paxton and Kemp spilled over, and people knew how parks worked and how to create them,' says Alan.

glasshouse alexandra park oldhamThe glasshouse at Alexandra Park in OldhamAlexandra Park in Oldham, created by unemployed people during the Cotton Famine, is one of his favourites. ‘It is an utterly beautiful, brilliant design with as far as I know no great pedigree attached to it - people just knew what they were doing,‘ he says admiringly.

The introduction of a new managerial class into local authorities in 1974 sounded the death knell for what was left of the ‘old school' parks superintendents. In the mid-70s, more than half of the new ‘leisure' departments in London were headed by former parks superintendents; 20 years later, there were just two left.

‘There was this push for more indoor recreation, more sports centres, and they started appointing young leisure managers and the like. They were better-educated and they made the rest of us look as if we were plodding around in garden boots,' Alan says wryly.