The daily life of our public recreational spaces

During March 2013, I was working on secondment from my usual place of work at the Parks Department of the local Council. I always find it so nice to see how other sections of the local authority operate and what tasks they undertake. Obviously not having any gardening qualifications or specialised equipment training, I was given some of the more mundane but vital tasks that need carrying out on a daily basis.

I didn’t mind in any way partaking of litter picking and bin emptying, it is a vital job and somebody has to do it. Doing that kind of work really gives one an understanding of how ‘park life’ operates. It seemed to me that the guys who worked in the park did their best to make it a pleasant family place to visit, whilst many members of the general public did as much as possible to turn it into a filthy tip.

The main entrance seen from inside the park

They would just drop litter anywhere, instead of depositing it in the plentiful supply of bins. It is truly amazing just how much litter has to be picked each day. There was plenty enough of it during a very cold and dismal March, it evidently becomes an absolute avalanche during the summer months when everybody and their brother wants to enjoy a bit of ‘park life’. I was also astounded by the amount of beer cans and vodka bottles to be picked up. What is the possible attraction of going to a freezing cold and windswept park in order to consume alcohol?


In addition to the litter problem, far too many irresponsible and uncaring dog owners just seem to let their animals foul wherever they want, with no intention of clearing the filthy mess up. In fact, I find that many dog owners simply treat public parks as no more than canine toilets and couldn’t care less that children playing in the park could come into contact with the faeces, which has the potential to cause blindness through the roundworm parasite Toxocara. Children are more at risk of this very unpleasant disease than adults, as they may play in infected dirt or sand and then rub their eyes or swallow the parasite.

The parasite burrows into the eyes causing tumours or detached retina and consequential blindness. The parasite can also enter the bloodstream and infect internal organs. Toxocara eggs are deposited with faeces and 2 - 3 weeks later the eggs "embryonate" thereby becoming infectious. The soil in many parks and play areas is contaminated with Toxocara eggs as they are resistant to disinfectants and to the frost, and can be viable for up to 10 years. This is a serious problem; In Great Britain, 24% of soil samples taken from public parks contained the eggs.

To my mind, the problem of fouling by uncaring dog owners is an issue that is underplayed and not treated as seriously as it should be. Rather than a fine for fouling, these people should be facing a criminal charge of Attempted Grievous Bodily Harm, as they are knowingly attempting to inflict harm upon another person, or more specifically, a child. I firmly believe that only significant jail time will bring about a change of attitude amongst antisocial dog owners.


Another aspect of ‘park life’ is the scourge of vandalism. This usually tends to take place at night when the park is officially closed, or when the local state schools tip out and a certain brand of so-called ‘bored teenagers’ inflict a bit of wanton destruction, before they go home to puff skunk, drink cheap cider and spend all night on their PlayStations.

The Council provide park benches to allow people to sit and enjoy the ambiance and atmosphere of the park, especially around the lakes where many birds congregate. At the park where I was working, they even had some amazingly coloured Egyptian geese. Unfortunately these benches are all too often the target for mindless vandalism. They get etched with badly spelt graffiti or damaged in other ways. Slats are broken or ripped off and in the end, the bench becomes unusable and the park takes on a far less pleasant and menacing feel.

A neglected and vandalized bench in the park

It also has to be said that Councils are often not maintaining park infrastructure as they should. In the current climate of cuts in public spending, the Parks Department are seen as a soft target and are the first to be starved of funding. It costs around £400 to replace a damaged wooden bench, plus the costs of fitting, and the money is simply not there. Even painting older benches with wood preserver is not happening and that to me is short sighted in the extreme.

One instance of vandalism that really infuriated me occurred in the memorial garden that sits within the park. This area commemorates the dead of both WW1 and WW2 and is a beautifully designed haven away from the madding crowd. In that garden were originally three benches made from the interior timber taken out of HMS Dido, when it was broken up at the end of its service life.

The Memorial Garden in the park

HMS Dido was launched on 18th July 1939 and commissioned on 30th September 1940. She saw action all through WW2 and survived it intact. In 1942 though she received major bomb damage, this was repaired and she was able to continue operations in the Eastern Mediterranean.  In 1953 she took part in the Fleet Review to celebrate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, where she was Flag ship of the Reserve Fleet. She was decommissioned and scrapped in 1957.

HMS Dido

The memorial garden originally contained three benches as previously mentioned, but when I was there, only one bench remained. The other two had been vandalised and had to be replaced. The last remaining bench was chained in place to prevent its removal but was in a rather sorry condition. I resolved to renovate that bench prior to my time at the park expiring, to ensure that it enjoyed a few more years of serviceable life. In a way it was my small way of paying homage to the fallen the memorial garden had been built to honour and remember. Despite the appalling weather, I was able to complete this self-appointed task, and it did feel good to have done something worthwhile and constructive.

The HMS Dido bench prior to renovation

The HMS Dido bench after renovation - still with 'wet paint' notice attached

I just cannot get into the minds of people who would vandalise a memorial garden to the fallen of those appalling global conflicts. These were ordinary working people, fighting a war to give them the freedoms they enjoy today. It does make my blood boil to see it happening.

Another example of the kind of vandalism that occurs in the parks these days was that of a litter bin, ripped out of the ground and tossed into the lake. Why on earth do something as mindless as that? What pleasure and entertainment can be gained by such wilful damage? On a cold winter’s night, surely these brainless cretins have something better to do at home?

Friends Groups

Many parks have friends groups. These are groups of volunteers who have a special interest in a particular park, and have some semi-official status working in conjunction with the local Council to help maintain the park. Unfortunately, although they mean well, these groups can be stuffed with insufferable busybodies, usually retired and middle class who can become the bane of the park staff.

Quite often they do love to relate how many local Councillors they know and how they can get this and that done and in the process, create more work for the park staff that are already seriously undermanned, under-paid, under-funded, under-resourced and stretched to the very limit using knackered old tools and equipment. I am sure that many of these friends would be out trainspotting or butterfly collecting if they were not involved in their local park.

The Future

I am genuinely concerned for the future of our local parks. As this seemingly endless recession, depression, call it what you like goes on and on, it is sure to lead to further cuts in the Parks Department of local Councils. More parks will end up being unstaffed and only visited by flying teams of mobile park workers. That has implications for safety as well as the appearance of our valuable public recreational areas. We are in danger of destroying these open spaces, bequeathed to us by our Victorian forebears who knew full well the social value of them. In a vicious irony, the neglected, unloved look of parks will then allow Councils to use it as an excuse to propose building on some of them.

The present government is about to relax planning laws and this is already putting green belt land in danger of development. If green belt land is built upon, then parkland will be sure to follow, especially in urban areas that have a lot of it. It is claimed by many that this need to build hundreds of thousands of new dwellings has been brought about by the immigration policies of governments since 1997, and the fact that British immigration policy is now dictated by the European Parliament, rather than British government in Westminster. There is it must be said, more than a grain of truth in that sentiment.

Our vital open spaces are under real threat from development

A huge growth in population will demand accommodation be made available, that is simply common sense. It is a demand that cannot be met from our current housing stock. That being the case, it would not be ridiculous to claim that we could see the decimation of our green belt land through urban development, and the erection of housing on some of our urban parks.

I for one do not wish to see our parks, left to us by past generations to preserve for future generations, disappear under concrete to house a population that is growing out of all concept of managed sustainability. Make no mistake; our green open public spaces will be in real danger from the pressures of over-population during the coming decades.

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