Don't be afraid of park safety

While the fear of crime can deter people from using parks, there are simple ways to overcome it. Gavin McEwan reports.

The headlines in the local paper were not how Derby's parks managers had hoped to see their flagship park reported. Having spent £5.6m on a lottery-funded restoration of the Arboretum, which had just been awarded a Green Flag, a series of thefts and muggings last month led to it being described as "trouble-plagued", with local parents warning of the dangers of venturing into it - even in daylight.

The 5ha early-Victorian park, thought to be the first publicly owned urban green space in England, had gained the Green Flag Award - indicating that it is safe, welcoming and well-maintained - earlier this summer.

Green Flags are administered by the Civic Trust. Marketing manager Caroline Williams says: "Safety is one of the eight criteria by which we judge a park. We look at how parks work towards that aim, which could include park patrols, CCTV or clear lines of vision. But a Green Flag is not a guarantee. Judges do not look at crime figures for the park, but if an issue has been raised by residents, they would want to see that resolved."

Derby City Council head of parks Steve Medlock says: "It was an unfortunate coincidence. When the Green Flag judges visited earlier in the year we hadn't had any problems.

"We have been working with the police anti-social behaviour team to tackle the issue. We still have a ranger team in the park and the police carry out patrols, and we meet them to keep each other updated."

He believes the reports overlook positive developments in the park since its refurbishment. "Vandalism has gone down and though the drug problem has not entirely disappeared, it's very limited," he says. "People don't want to be seen, and that's harder now the park is used a lot more."

Petty crime such as vandalism is a more everyday headache, he says. "Most parks have a problem with vandalism at some point. It's usually just two or three lads who form a gang round them, cause some problems, then something changes in their circumstances and the problem disappears.

"And if you know people in the community, you can often resolve the problem without the police, depending on who is involved. The local population doesn't want it and will report any trouble to us. Everyone has a part to play - not just the security people. If you get the whole picture right, you solve the anti-social issue."

As part of the restoration, match-funding from the Home Office was spent on the installation of CCTV in the park.

"We have been able to use CCTV footage of a couple of lads in the Arboretum to back up our case," he says. "They were issued with ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders) and haven't been back."

Medlock does not regard CCTV as a panacea, however. "It's most valuable in high-use areas such as around buildings, sports pitches and playgrounds. But you can only cover a percentage of the area, especially in an arboretum."

Most Victorian parks were built with railings around them. During the world wars, many of these were removed to provide scrap metal for the arms industry.

Parks consultant Stewart Harding says railings still have a part to play in securing today's parks. "Yobs were just as much a problem in Victorian times, if not more so," he says. "The HLF (Heritage Lottery Fund) has spent a lot of money on railings, and people love it. It's living in a fool's paradise to think you don't need boundaries and security in a park."

Derby's Arboretum has railings around its historic heart, which can be locked at night. But according to Medlock: "There are different solutions for different places. Generally, we haven't locked parks in Derby since the 1970s. Locking a park doesn't prevent people getting in - if you really want to get in, you can."

A locked park may also shield more nefarious activities, such as dumping stolen goods, he adds."You still have to keep an eye on the place. And besides the impracticality of keeping people out is the sheer cost of maintaining fences, which is money that could be spent on other facilities."

Parks consultant Sid Sullivan agrees. "No evidence proves locking up parks either keeps people out or reduces crime," he says, pointing to other means of increasing security as preferable options.

"Most parks have some form of bylaw. There's no point in having them if you don't enforce them, but a lot of authorities don't. And if there is an incident, how quickly can you respond? If it's more than 10 or 15 minutes, it will probably all be over by then."

Sullivan says the fear of crime, as much as crime itself, is an issue that managers need to address.

"Most of the trouble, and the fear of it, comes from there being no one there," he says. "It disappears when people are using the park and the police walk through from time to time. So get the park into people's daily lives, with running or cycle routes."

He also believes there is greater potential for volunteers to provide a recognisable presence in parks. "It looks good on your CV to be putting something back," he says. "Hundreds more people would do it."

Even when parks do have a presence, it is not always used to best effect, he believes. "People working in parks should greet people as they come in, introduce themselves, and get to know their park users.

"Get people to tell you what they're fearful of and why. If you do that and then measure people's fear of crime, you find it has gone down. It changes perceptions - just as greeting people in shops makes them spend more money."

People's fears often come second-hand, he adds. "They may have this idea of what it's like even if they haven't been in for a long time. If you can get them back in, give them a positive impression, which will feed through the grapevine to their friends and neighbours."

Publicising the hours during which parks are manned can provide additional reassurance to such people, Sullivan adds.

"Colleagues should also write up their successes," he says. "Companies these days talk of their 'social responsibility' - it's time parks services started to as well.

"There have been some dreadful cases reported in parks, but my instinct from talking to my clients is that the problem is nowhere near as prevalent as people think. But there is no reliable data, which is ridiculous.

"If we did the research, I think we would find that parks are among the safest areas in the country."

NORMAND PARK: SECURED BY DESIGN

Facing north to the exclusive Queen's Club Mansions and south to a fairly rough estate, the recently reopened Normand Park, in south-west London, aims to provide a safe, neutral ground for the area's diverse communities.

Reducing crime - and the fear of crime - affected not just the park's physical design, but the whole approach to community engagement, says co-designer Maria Horn of Kinnear Landscape Architects.

"We worked closely with the Metropolitan and parks police, who knew what the issues were - vandalism, vicious dogs, drugs," she says. "But we also worked with hard-to-reach groups - youths, local schools, the elderly - through an arts consultation programme."

She admits that finding teenagers who were willing to get involved was difficult initially. "But with them we were able to develop their ideas about the park and how they are perceived in it - how others might feel threatened by them," she says.

This led to them making a short film in the park and creating a photo exhibition. It also brought out a number of suggestions for the park's design, including a small raised "performance space", popular with girls, and a ball space and fixed ping-pong tables.

"Secured by Design" guidelines, drawn up by police to "design out crime", were followed. These guidelines cover such issues as path widths, sight lines and planting distances within parks.

"We removed big shrub areas so that people couldn't congregate there, and paths are now wider and safer," says Horn.

"A community development officer based in the park was something everyone was very keen on," she adds. A hut, which was originally slated for demolition, now also serves as a base for the friends' group, formed as part of the regeneration programme to bring together the disparate communities, and teas and coffees are served there at busy times.

"It means there's always someone there to stick a plaster on a child's scraped knee or tell a dog-walker to pick up after their dog," says Horn. Some of the members of the friends' group have no qualms about maintaining order in the park, she adds, even if strictly speaking it goes beyond their remit.

The park remains accessible at night, as a much-used walkway runs through it. So far there is minimal evidence of damage. Raised beds planted by community groups with flowers, herbs and vegetables are flourishing.


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