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park and rough ride

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Ken Worpole is a leading authority on public spaces, yet he advocates selling off urban green land to developers. No stranger to controversy, he says we need more public consultation if we are to make best use of our urban parks

At his recent lecture at the RIBA, Ken Worpole reiterated his belief in the social advantage of public space.

'The designer of public space has a special responsibility to understand and care for the public good, which is only partly a matter of design, ' he says. In fact, he says that he has recently become bemused by the notion of urban design. 'None of the major players who claim that they have a case to be the lead designer in urban design deserves the role.'

Instead, he is in favour of better consultation, more transparency and research. 'We need to develop a public managerialism, ' he says, 'whereby ordinary people realise the constraints and engage with policy providers to ensure that realistic options are put forward.'

Regarding the rise of public protest against swimming pool and library closures, Worpole suggests that the propensity for local authorities to throw open their ledgers for public scrutiny has been a positive development. 'Consulting with the public for the better use of limited resources can only be a good thing.'

As one of the foremost authorities on the urban public realm, he is not averse to courting controversy. At his RIBA presentation, he casually announced that 'some London boroughs have too much green space, which is bad for urbanity. Lots of green space could be developed and the money made from selling it off could be spent on better planned public space.'

He cites recent analysis that parks might be generally considered to be pleasant and relaxing places by day, but - especially in metropolitan areas - have a much darker edge to them; at night, parks become threatening, or arenas for covert sexual liaisons. Worpole insists that we need to understand the changing relationships of - and to - public space and cater for its flux, rather than provide lowest common denominator solutions.

When I visited him in his splendid flat in a surprisingly quiet corner of north London, it was a bit like stepping back in time. The communal lawn at the front had been mown with cricket pitch stripes, the gazebo was occupied by an elderly gentleman in a white fedora, and handmade signs announced the forthcoming residents' Summer Pudding Festival. I felt as though I had stumbled into Private Godfrey's rose garden.

But it is hardly surprising that Worpole should live in this location, overlooking the local park, given his great enthusiasm for open spaces.

Author of books such as People, Parks and Cities and Park Life: Urban Parks and Social Renewal, he is currently an appointee onto the government's Urban Green Spaces Task Force, a group name about which he is less than enthusiastic, believing that it confuses greenery with meaningful public space.

Born in the last years of the Second World War, he recalls moving 23 times by the time he was 16 , learning a lot about the geography of the south-east of England. He worked briefly in the construction industry, studying to be a civil engineer for four years, before his reading of the usual beatnik texts inspired his love of English and a leftleaning radicalism, whereupon he decided to train to become a teacher. Having taught in Hackney Downs School in London from 1969-73, he left to set up the Centreprise Publishing Project, a community scheme which he ran until 1979 and which exists to this day.

The objective of Centreprise, which still informs Worpole's interest in the public realm, was to invest legitimacy in the 'hidden voices' of the community. As someone who has grave reservations about the merits of the 'academic movement', his auto-didacticism translates into a desire for a more generalised, self-educative culture.

In this, he identifies his role as that of a 'go-between' - between 'those in the community with real knowledge who can't communicate, and professionals who carry on without real understanding or knowledge.'

He explains his job as that of a 'storyteller' with a view to 'making visible people's ordinary experiences', although he is not interested in doing this in the abstract - he always has an eye on the influence his work has on public policy.

Park Li fe, written for Comedia and Demos in 1995, contains interviews with 1,000 people and observations on the movements and preferences of 10,000 citizens in 12 cities.

This was not an opinion survey - 'opinions are 10 a penny', he says - rather this study was a research exercise to see how existing provision worked, and why. It was, he says, 'the first time that park professionals had realised there was a social dimension to their work. Before that, they were under the impression that they were designing in purely horticultural terms.'

'The counter-intuitive fact is that most people go to public areas for private objectives, ' he says. For Worpole, this is not meant to be a critique of the growing political intrusion of the public sphere into private lives, but rather a plain statement of fact that urban domesticity is not always seen as being conducive to privacy.

Through their engagement with the public realm, people are seeking out havens of contemplation.

The issue of public participation, and the intuitive role of the community in developing better public provision, leaves an interesting question yet to be resolved. That of regulation and more socially responsible public participation.

Given that Worpole says that many people regard public space as the site of private interaction, is a defence of the public realm a celebration of the individual or the social? Unfortunately, our interview ends before I have had time to formulate the question.

Worpole does offer some clues though.

Reminiscing on his home locale, he notes that 'the park continues to exert a form of sociability and mutual tolerance on the vast majority of its users during that time. Much more so than the street.' Discuss.

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