Alan Barber: champion of the people's parks
"Great parks make great cities"
Alan deplores the design of many contemporary parks. His description of most of them as ‘flat, dull, colourless spaces' is the least scathing of his comments.
‘A lot of landscape architects turn up their noses at public parks and say that Victorian parks are out of date. But the only reason they don't meet today's needs is because they've had so much stripped out of them. These were wonderful, joyous, fully featured places in their heyday,' he says vehemently.
Few of today's new parks and civic spaces offer any sense of discovery or delight, he believes. They are soulless places which have lost their focus on pleasing people and are too reliant on paving slabs at the expense of plants.
As chairman of the adjudicators for the British Association of Landscape Industries' National Landscape Awards for over 10 years, he was struck by the quality of the domestic gardens he saw.
‘Although you can't take a garden design and simply blow it up to be a park, garden designers seem to be able to work with colour and in three dimensions. I got the feeling that landscape architects couldn't do it any more, at least when it came to public parks.'
Alan's unstinting lobby for a national body to champion parks was rewarded eventually with the launch of an addition to the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), known as CABE Space in May 2003. The new body was welcome, although it fell somewhat short of his vision for a national agency able to influence through the power to award grant aid.
Alan became a commissioner for CABE with the portfolio for urban parks and open spaces. He feels that a lot has been achieved in a short time to raise the profile of public parks and green spaces, but remains concerned at the continuing shortage of funds for their maintenance.
‘The HLF has done wonderful work, but we've got to crack the revenue problem. Otherwise it all falls apart in time,' he says.
Reluctantly Alan has had to reduce his commitments recently, having lost both his kidneys to cancer, which means regular trips to the local hospital for dialysis. He had to step down from CABE earlier this year, although he continues to act as an adviser.
‘I am sorry I am having to bow out of the battle. Arguments on the value of green space are being won, and positive action is being taken, but the fight is still not over,' he says.
He believes that the future of public parks will never truly be secure until the system for their management is reformed and their funding assured, and for a while he seems despondent: ‘Why is this case so difficult to make? There's a limit to the amount of time we can spend talking to ourselves,' he sighs.
Yet in the end he remains optimistic: ‘What Vancouver has known for over 100 years, the UK will eventually learn: that great parks make great cities,' he asserts.