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Park life

Julia Thrift, director of CABE offshoot CABE Space, is on a mission: to raise the public's awareness of England's urban parks and public spaces - and to dramatically improve them Julia Thrift has a big job on her hands. The director of CABE Space has been working from the government quango's dreary Waterloo offices for just five months. But already she knows there is a lot to do to get England's parks and green spaces up to scratch, and their importance etched onto the public's subconscious.

'We want to see better designed, better maintained parks and public spaces, and staff who have more support to deliver them, ' she says. 'But it's not going to happen overnight. There are an enormous number of issues and it's not going to be easy.'

Branded 'passionate about parks' by former ODPM minister Tony McNulty, Thrift had always been interested in design, 'remembering buildings from a long way back'. She had even considered becoming an architect. 'But then I went to the careers department and they said you had to train for six years-plus, and I thought: 'Oh my god! I'll be so old by the time I've done my course. I can't possibly do that.'

So she read Philosophy at UCL, which, while not exactly vocational, at least married arts with science. Afterwards, she 'fell' into a junior job in a tiny publishing house and went from 'making the tea' to writing articles about finance, learning from ex-Financial Times journalists, watching how a magazine was put together, and discovering how businesses work.

Then came Direction, a magazine about design and advertising, where she had 'carte blanche to phone up designers and ask lots of questions'. Next she decided to go freelance, wary of the 'treadmill' effect of magazines, writing for Time Out and enjoying the 'huge education', of attending exhibitions at places like the RIBA.

But then came the Civic Trust, and a significant leap from writing, to 'doing'. Thrift ran the Trust's awards, and feels lucky to have witnessed contemporary British architecture losing its inhibitions - becoming more challenging, and emerging from pastiche.

'Suddenly, there was a boom of very high quality architecture all around the country, ' she says. 'It was a very exciting time to be involved.'

The Lottery was the chief catalyst. 'As a result I think most people in this country have seen a well-designed modern building and probably enjoyed the experience. And that wasn't the case 10 years ago. It was people beginning to experience what can be done - and I think we're about to face the same thing in public spaces.'

Thrift commends examples in Manchester, alongside her favourite, Manor House Gardens - a commercially-managed facility near her Lewisham home - which has been transformed from being 'a bit grotty' to boasting a children's play area, dog and dogfree areas, tennis court, and a stream (with ducks).

Crucially, though, it is a park people love.

'It provides something for a lot of different sorts of people and what they want from a park.' The challenge is the opposite: large expanses of featureless green spaces, often in the suburbs; the approach to parks has been quantity over quality, and it shows. The CABE Space job builds on Thrift's Civic Trust work on the Green Flag awards. At that time, government commissioned the Urban Green Spaces Task Force to investigate why our parks had deteriorated. It came up with 52 recommendations. 'There's no single reason. Money isn't the only one. Training is another issue. Another is that parks are not a statutory service, so they are always an easy budget to cut. Authorities do not have to provide museums either, though, and these have generally been better funded, though are less visited.

'People working in parks aren't able to lobby as strongly as they might, both within their local authorities to make the case for why they should be getting money and nationally to make the case to government.'

CABE Space fills that role. The 11-strong unit includes landscape architects, researchers and ex-Groundwork staff. Its 'very specific work plan' responds to the task force's recommendations, and Thrift has commissioned wide-ranging research. This will include a comparison of UK parks with those abroad - probably from Spain, Holland and Australia. Is it a political thing? Are other countries readier to pay more taxes for parks maintenance? Is it to do with ownership? Thrift suspects there is more of a strategic approach abroad and greater awareness that people can do something about their local areas. And that awareness informed CABE Space's 'Wasted Space?'

campaign, highlighting the worst in the country. 'We have power as a consumer and as a voter.We can change things.'

Then there is a fascinating-sounding piece of work on the economic value of parks and public spaces; plus guidance on things to consider when creating them. And Thrift's staff will be helping councils formulate strategies for their green spaces, instead of the usual ad hoc way they run them. It will be working with 30 authorities over the next six months, giving expertise and support, rather than cash. Money can come to authorities with strategies from the Heritage Lottery Fund or even by using Section 106s.

But Thrift insists maintenance must not be forgotten.

'If a building is a really good building on Monday it's still going to be on Friday. If a public space is wonderful on Monday, by Friday it could be full of litter and really horrible, so maintenance of public space is hugely important. In this country we're relatively good at finding capital to create places or parks and we then just don't have any plans for revenue funding.'

Public parks have 'lost' £1.3 billion in public money since 1979. And yet somehow, these providers of what Thrift calls 'social glue', must be revitalised against that funding crisis, skills deficit, and councils selling off playing fields to make a fast buck. Thrift doesn't expect any major changes inside five years. But she wants one thing to quickly gain public recognition: 'It's that investing in parks is not a drain in resources, but really does pay off, economically and socially, ' she says. 'If we can get that right, we can really make a difference, and raise people's aspirations'.

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