Interview - Jon Sheaff, parks manager, Southwark council

The vision of the Victorians creating swathes of quality public open space is often held up as an example of the significance given to parks in that era. The legacy of that foresight continues in towns and cities around the UK, and perhaps nowhere more so than in London, where the urban fabric is hugely enhanced by those green spaces.

But the designers of that period were not the only ones to champion the notion of parks for city dwellers, and Southwark's parks manager Jon Sheaff is determined that his borough's more recently created green spaces are not forgotten. While the south London borough may have won five Green Flags this year, it is the more neglected, lower profile Burgess Park that holds his primary interest.

"We are at one of those moments in history where a transformation of Burgess Park has to happen over the next five years and it is an opportunity that is not going to come again," says Sheaff.

The areas surrounding the 46ha park are undergoing a significant regeneration, with new homes having already been completed in north Peckham, and the neighbouring Aylesbury Estate on the cusp of being torn down and rebuilt.

Sheaff believes the underused Burgess Park needs to play a primary role in the new communities and is adamant that its history as part of the 1944 Abercrombie Plan to form a network of urban parkways is as significant as that of the Victorian parks. "It is the major public park and if this (regeneration) had been happening 150 years ago, or now in Europe, the park would be one of the first elements to be done," adds Sheaff.

Having grown up in the Cheshire countryside surrounded by woods and fields, Sheaff believes the outdoor experience is hugely significant in people's well-being.

Much of his spare time is spent in the parks and open spaces of Hackney, where he lives with his wife and young son and daughter. "Parks and open spaces are fundamental to the quality of life in urban areas," explains the former musician, who turned to horticulture and landscape architecture after nearly 10 years in the entertainment industry.

"Living in the city is a complicated act of faith for lots of people because there are certain things you have to believe are going to work every day. The park is a place to go to take that coat off, put it down on the grass and sit on it."

History features strongly in Burgess Park and a wall from the former R Whites lemonade factory even makes up part of the park's Studio E-designed community sports centre, opened in 2006 as part of an ongoing drive to attract people to the green space.

Sheaff is determined to see the park realise its full potential: "One of the key reasons it is underused is that is doesn't have a real sense of place or identity and we probably need about £25m to get Burgess Park to function properly. But in the current funding climate that is just not going to be there."

Despite that, the next few months could well prove to be a turning point for Sheaff and his pet project.

There are plans to introduce art to the park and collaboration between Sheaff and Farrer Huxley principal landscape architect Noel Farrer could help sway favour for a revamp.

"Noel Farrer is right now putting together a scoping document for how Burgess Park will develop over the next few years," reveals Sheaff. "I've set a notional target of £5m for making the park work and Noel is working on some very indicative costings of what that might give us, which we'll present to council."

Although Southwark has its well-heeled areas, many of its neighbourhoods are deprived and throw up additional challenges for parks staff.

"Southwark is an incredibly deprived local authority and it has had its share of knife crime and drug problems. The major problem is that people don't feel safe here," says Sheaff. "Parks need to reach a critical mass of people to tackle that security and perception."

But that realistic outlook does not hamper Sheaff's enthusiasm for his work, and the prospect of a regenerated park for the people is the motor that drives his passion. He adds: "I get real excitement out of seeing spaces transformed and it is very rewarding just talking to people who want to be in parks."

CV
1974-77
: Completed degree in archaeology at University of Cambridge
1981-90: Works as a musician
1991: City & Guilds course in horticulture
1992-95: Post graduate diploma in landscape architecture at the
University of Central England
1995-98: Landscape architect at TACP in Cardiff
1998-2000: Art commissioner at Cardiff Bay Arts Trust
2000: Lottery projects manager at Enfield Council
2001-03: Service development manager at Southwark Council
2003-present: Parks manager at Southwark Council


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