The reopening of a 1.7ha park in a brutalist housing estate in North London is a triumph for the Heritage Lottery Funding programme and for the estate residents who spearheaded the project.
Alexandra Road Park is set in council-owned Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate in South Hampstead. Both were designed in the 1970s by architect Neave Brown and landscape architect Janet Jack, and the estate itself is internationally renowned and Grade II* heritage listed.
Yet the park suffered decades of neglect under Camden Council's watch, full of rotten posts and cracked paving and blanketed in ivy.
Jack's bespoke playgrounds were ripped out in the risk-averse 1980s, and in recent years only the bravest members of the public would venture into the park after dark.
But thanks to a group of strong-minded residents, the park is now thriving. It officially reopened on 3 September after a £1.5m restoration, with new playgrounds, a multi-use sports area, and many tranquil lawns and secluded seating areas for the public to use.
Residents steered the project through from conception, winning the first phase of HLF funding and hiring Sue Morgan and Nick Burton of consultancy Around the Block in 2011 to manage the remainder of the project.
There was initial scepticism over whether HLF would fund a park attached to a housing estate and owned by a housing department. But HLF head of London Stuart Hobley explains the site was a strong fit for funding as it was a public park in its own right, rather than merely land surrounding a housing estate for residents' use.
But as HLF's first time funding a housing estate park, there were unforeseen challenges. The project had to stay low-budget, with the HLF and Big Lottery Fund giving £1m and £500,000 coming from Camden Council.
This was because any council match-funding would be drawn from tenants and leaseholders, and if it hit a certain threshold it could trigger an estate-wide consultation and risk derailing the whole project.
Proving the heritage aspect of the park was less difficult. The 20th Century Society describes Alexandra Road Park as "the most significant landscape of its type in the UK", and HLF has already funded several other modernist parks, including Howard Park in Letchworth and the Stevenage Town Centre water gardens.
Hobley says often it is the public that does not appreciate the heritage value of "harsh" post-war architecture and landscapes, which lack the softer natural forms we associate with beauty.
However, "ensuring people understand such modernism and sometimes brutal schemes is part of helping people appreciate and value them", he says.
Landscape architects J&L Gibbons were brought in to work on the park with Ground Control carrying out the contract work. Neil Davidson of J&L Gibbons says restoring a modernist landscape has one big benefit - namely, the chance to consult the original designer.
The original planting palette was largely reused with an added emphasis on biodiversity. Pavers, concrete, posts and rails were restored where possible, and judicious pruning of trees and shrubs has reopened sight lines so that light floods the park.
Bespoke play equipment from specialists Erect Architecture references Jack's original designs.
For example, while play areas are sunk into the ground, children can climb onto the structures within them to see out, and passing adults can see in. "That helps encourage people to go into the spaces," Davidson says.
Some good came from the neglect, Davidson points out, citing that the area became a habitat for rare wildlife.
To avoid history repeating itself, project managers Around the Block have created a detailed maintenance and management plan. Wild areas will be dealt with in phases over the 10-year programme to minimise habitat disturbance.
Around the Block's Sue Morgan says there were three big weaknesses at the start of the project: separate housing and parks management contracts, the lack of a dedicated gardener, and underuse of the park by the wider community.
Contractor Fountains OCS now maintains both park and estate under a single integrated contract, and Camden Council has funded a part-time head gardener.
Camden Council and the residents signed a partnership agreement to bring the project to fruition, and all stakeholders are now represented on a steering group embedded in the management plan to ensure the park is cared for in perpetuity.
Who was involved - Project team
- Around the Block - Overall project management, 10-year maintenance & management plan, activity plan
- J & L Gibbons - Landscape design
- Erect Architecture - Playground design
- Sarah Couch - Conservation management plan
- MTW Consultants - Evaluation and activity plan
- Artelia - Quantity surveying
- Ground Control - Contract work
- Eleanor Fawcett - Coordinator
- Elizabeth Knowles - Chair of the Friends of Alexandra Road Park
- Sara Bell - Secretary of the Alexandra and Ainsworth tenants and residents association Camden
- Justin Hunt - Head of estate management
- Oliver Myers - Head of parks