Balancing act dictates parks managers' skills

Flexibility, patience and good negotiating skills are essential traits for the modern parks manager as they oversee the delicate balancing act of trying to keep everybody happy.

Exercising in parks is gaining in popularity
Exercising in parks is gaining in popularity

With parks being used more for events, as a business venue for dog walkers and personal trainers and for free exercise classes, so the potential for disagreements over what parks are for increases.

First tiny Stoke Gifford Parish Council prompted a countrywide backlash when it decided to charge entrants to volunteer-led Parkrun events. Then another row erupted last month in The Royal Parks' Primrose Hill between free exercise group Project Awesome and disgruntled residents.

Craig Woodhouse of Primrose Hill was widely quoted as saying the park is "jam-packed with hipsters who hug each other and go around high-fiving each other". He added: "They get in the way of normal people and the music is obviously high-energy stuff and very annoying and disruptive."

The Royal Parks said amplified music is not allowed in its parks and those in breach of the rules would be dealt with by parks police. The Project Awesome group is also active in Bristol and Edinburgh, where head of parks, green space and cemeteries David Jamieson said he has had no complaints about it so far.

He added that Project Awesome and other groups are given a code of conduct when given permission to use the park. Requests include that "noise is kept to a minimum" and they are asked to avoid using children's play equipment.

"If we receive any complaint we will investigate. Park management rules enable the council to expel and exclude fitness instructors who do not have permission or have had permission withdrawn."

Jamieson said parks managers have to keep up to date with what residents want to do in their parks and make sure they are appealing places for everybody, not an easy task with hundreds of registered groups, some with competing priorities.

"Exercise groups of this nature is very new but it's a constantly evolving scene. We're having to develop a policy on the use of drones at the moment."

Watford Borough Council head of parks, open spaces and projects Paul Rabbitts said he often gets complaints relating to Cassiobury Park. One was from dog walkers when he temporarily located a Gaelic football hurling club to old playing fields. Local residents were worried windows would get smashed despite being far outside possible throwing distance.

"The locals were really upset about it," he said. "They saw hurling as a dangerous sport and thought there would be hoards of drunken Irishmen. I had to work really hard."

Rabbitts said it is important to balance residents' complaints about noise with the benefit to local people of taking exercise. But he added that sometimes the "angst" goes too far, such as the time he dealt with noise complaints about cancer charity fun run Race for Life.

"When I started it was all about horticulture. I can't remember the last time we specified what type of tree we have. Now it's very much about what goes on in the park. It's about activity, it's about negotiating leases, it's very much around engagement rather than maintenance. We're always having to evolve."

Parks consultant Sid Sullivan said parks managers need more of "a freestyle approach" than their predecessors. "People don't want to be told what to do so we have to finesse control. If you're not careful you'll aggravate the people who are going to pay for parks over the next 30 or 40 years. You have to find a workaround. One of the most important skills a modern parks manager needs is the ability to get the public to trust their professional judgement. You can't consult on every tiny little detail."

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