Interview - Mark Wasilewski, park manager, St James's Park and Green Park

Mark Wasilewski is putting the finishing touches on a huge restoration job at St James's Park, which hosted six Olympic and Paralympic Games sports, millions of spectators and a vast logistics compound that swallowed up - and churned up - half the park for 14 days of events. It was a monster job for a manager who has to balance raw gardening talent with delicate diplomacy.

Mark Wasilewski, park manager, St James's Park and Green Park  - image: HW
Mark Wasilewski, park manager, St James's Park and Green Park - image: HW

Q: What can you tell us about the job in hand?

A: Restoring the park involved preparing the ground and laying 3.6ha of turf and overseeding 2.8ha of damaged parkland. Lots of this work took place over five weeks last autumn. We have also planted more than 16,000 wild flower plugs, including harebell, evening primrose and ox-eyed daisy. For the games, much of the park was closed to the public so that we could house offices, storage and media centres and beach volleyball courts.

Q: What were the most challenging aspects?

A: To begin with, working with Olympics organisers on deciding which areas would receive most foot and vehicle traffic and where to lay trackways with aeration holes to protect the existing turf. We had to think about trees and shrubs and redirect routes away from these areas to avoid damaging canopies and root zones.

I hadn't seen as much rain in 20 years, so we had to use lots of bark mulch. We have set ourselves a reopening date of March.

Q: How will you deal with drought and deluge in future?

A: We are looking at planning, design and planting across all the parks. I have given presentations to Thames Water on the major issues facing parks managers. We are looking at automatic "smart systems" of irrigation that target water more accurately and during times of reduced evaporation. We also want to use boreholes instead of mains water and we will look at ground preparation and the use of mulches to ensure there is plenty of organic material. We are looking at relaxed mowing regimes, letting grass grow longer and planting more wild flower beds.

Q: Does The Royal Parks host too many events?

A: I don't think so. This is a relatively small park with high footfall - 6.7 million visitors a year - but we do so much work beforehand with the client to minimise damage. We agree a restoration programme and follow-through before anything starts and every event application is treated separately on what the park can sustain. We won't accept an application if it is not compatible with the character of St James's Park.

Q: What makes a successful park manager?

A: In this job - being bordered by Buckingham Palace, Downing Street and Parliament Square - it is sensitivity and diplomacy. You never know who's asking you about a flower or tree. My staff of five deal with the palace, Number 10 and Scotland Yard, and this can throw up unusual situations. Larry, the Downing Street cat, recently found his way through my pet Maisie's magnetic cat flap. I had to carry him back and ease him through the Downing Street railings. Management involves planning hospitality, security, media and medical positions and crowd movements on top of horticulture and maintenance. People see us as civil servants, but I'm a gardener.

Q: What's new for St James's Park and Green Park?

A: I am not only a custodian of historic landscapes but of a public park. The day I run out of new ideas is the time to retire. We're looking at vegetable plots to tie in with a recent Britain in Bloom edible campaign, planting herb areas and, of course, more sporting events.

Q: Who does all this work in The Royal Parks?

A: We went from in-house staff to contractors in the 1990s and are about to retender again. Some organisations look at bringing services back in house, but the situation now works well for us. We will be completely revisiting how we look at contracting - maybe there are things contractors could do as well as landscape maintenance. We are looking for efficiency savings and value for money. It's an interesting time and we are going to start workshops with staff from all of the parks to look at what we want from this new budget settlement from the Department for Culture, Media & Sport.

Q: What one thing would make your life easier?

A: A PA. There's more to life than wading through emails until 7pm. I miss doing horticulture and every year I try to design at least one flower bed. However, the best aspect of the job is the variety of the work. I love to smell the hyacinths and hear the birds singing in the morning.

1978-89: Trainee gardener and horticulturist, Somerset Health Authority
1989-92: Propagator and nursery manager, Greenwich Park
1992-96: Park supervisor, St James's Park and Green Park
1996-2002: Assistant manager, Regent's Park
2002 to date: Park manager, St James's Park and Green Park

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