Interview: Derrick Spurr, Park manager, Greenwich Park

Every weekend Greenwich Park in south-east London is full of sounds. The shouts of children playing, the barks of dogs and the click and whirr of digital cameras as tourists photograph each other next to the Meridian Line. But soon a different sound will be heard in the royal park - the thunder of horses' hooves.

In 2012 Greenwich Park will be the setting for the Olympic equestrian events. Horseriding is the most popular spectator event at the Olympics after athletics. Seating, stableyards, toilet blocks and veterinary facilities will need to be built for the three-day event. Various types of jumps will be incorporated into the course, which was chosen for its changing levels.

And one man is responsible for safeguarding the park. Park manager Derrick Spurr says: "My role will be mitigating the obvious pressures the event will place on a historic park. I want to ensure the park comes back very quickly to what it was before."

Spurr is in consultation with the London Organising Committee to decide the route. At this stage, the planned course would run through a rare acid grassland but fortunately the scheme is "not final", according to Spurr.

The park's 30 veteran trees and Anglo Saxon burial grounds also need protecting. To prevent compaction of the ground around the park's veteran trees, Spurr is considering putting down a layer of soft material around the tree bases before the event and terraventing afterwards.

In addition to planning the Olympic event, Spurr is also managing the restoration of the park's historic tree avenues. In the 1660s the park was transformed from a medieval hunting ground into a formal landscape of avenues. Half of the tree population were elms until an outbreak of Dutch elm disease in the 1970s, and there is not a single elm left standing in Greenwich Park today.

Storm damage and trees reaching their lifespan mean there are lots of gaps to fill, says Spurr. The team has already planted 500 new trees in six years, but there's still a way to go.

He is not planning to introduce disease-resistant elms in the park. "They don't have the right top shape," Spurr says. He is using common horse and sweet chestnut and broad-leaved lime. He is also keen to involve the community: "I would like to set up a community project involving local schools, growing seeds from the trees in the park."

Spurr started in horticulture on an apprenticeship. To further his knowledge he went to study amenity management at Cannington College in Somerset in 1967 before moving on to the landscapes division at Hillier's.

After moving to work for various local authorities in London, he was appointed assistant director and then director of leisure and recreation at Hammersmith & Fulham council. He went freelance in 1996 and having worked with the Royal Parks on several projects he took over the park manager role at Greenwich Park in 1997.

Spurr is passionate about the parks sector, discussing the benefits that parks provide, including drawing in tourists and the positive effect they have on mental and physical health. "But lots of people, including politicians, don't realise the benefits they bring. We need a better way of getting the message across."

However, he is wary of too much introspective analysis: "Park practitioners are good at talking to other practitioners but we are not very good at selling the idea to others. We need an action plan for the park sector."

One of the pressures on a park manager these days is the need to generate income as direct funding from the Government decreases. Greenwich hosts opera and open air theatre, not always with the approval of all local residents. "I know some want it to be a quiet park with nothing going on but if we don't hold events we can't balance the books and the park will fall into a period of decline. As it is, the more income we generate the greater the chunk taken off the following year's funding. That's why parks need to be seen as important."

But for now the trees and Spurr are holding up against the storm. The profile of public parks is being raised by involvement in the Olympic programme and the building of links by Spurr and his team with the community - moves that will only serve to make local people love their local park just that little bit more.

CV

1960-1965 Apprentice at Plymouth City Corporation, attending Plymouth College on day release

1967-1968 Studied amenity management course at Cannington College, Somerset

1968 Landscape manager at Hillier's

1976-1981 Worked for various local authorities in London

1981-1994 Assistant director and director of leisure and recreation for Hammersmith & Fulham council

1996 Freelance parks consultant

1997-date Park manager at Greenwich Park.


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