Park and garden habitats


From their heyday in Victorian times, many public parks and other urban greenspaces declined towards the end of the twentieth century. However, the case for the importance of urban greenspaces is now undergoing a revival, based on an evidence base of their social, environmental and economic values and benefits.

The provision of quality parks and gardens requires a responsible owner or management committee, site aims and objectives, local demand and an appropriate budget. Greenspaces must strive to be inclusive – the local community, in all its diversity, should be involved in setting aims and objectives, and develop a sense of ownership. The big challenge is to create a space that meets the needs of all the local community.

From as early as the second half of the nineteenth century, urban greenspaces in the form of municipal city parks were seen as a means of improving the unhealthy lives of city dwellers and factory workers. The Victorian interest in parks saw the establishment of country parks on the periphery of towns along with a diverse array of town parks, including formal public gardens, ecology parks, community parks and informal recreational areas.

Parks and greenspaces are not a statutory service that local authorities are legally obliged to provide. Throughout the twentieth century they slipped down the political agenda, losing out to formal recreation and leisure activities that generated income, and to statutory environmental services such as waste management and planning.

Funding for public parks and urban greenspace was reduced significantly between 1979 and 2000, losing an estimated £1.3 billion in total in the UK - see The Value of Public Space (PDF-2360K).


More recently, the case for the importance of urban greenspace is being made again, through work to build up an evidence base of their value derived from their:

  • Economic value
  • Positive impact on physical and mental health
  • Benefits for children and young people
  • Contribution towards reducing crime and antisocial behaviour
  • Role in encouraging cultural, social and community cohesion
  • Significant environmental benefits.

Practical considerations

The UK Government has now set specific objectives for the provision of quality greenspace (e.g. Of the 30 cross-departmental Public Service Agreements that came into effect April 2008, PSA Target 8 requires delivery of cleaner, safer and greener public spaces; other PSAs that support the provision of quality greenspace includes PSA Target 1 to tackle social exclusion and deliver neighbourhood renewal through improved local liveability).

Formal parks and gardens – and municipal parks of a less formal design – require a commitment to management resources. In UK, almost £700 million per year was spent on urban greenspace maintenance in 2004 to 05. Without regular maintenance, vegetation becomes overgrown, faster-growing species dominate, and the aesthetic appeal of the park, generated by its floristic design and diversity, declines. Over longer periods, built structures (such as paths, water features, buildings and arts features) may also fall into disrepair. Neglect of parks and gardens in the urban setting may often be associated with antisocial behaviour, including vandalism, leading to the exclusion of many different types of user. Reduced budgets often lead to monotonous planting and the loss of flower beds to shrub beds or lawn. With the loss of the necessary skills base, complex and interesting habitats such as wildflower meadows, which require expert management, have been lost to barren landscapes of closely mown lawn.

Like all urban greenspaces, the provision of quality parks and gardens requires a responsible owner or management committee, site aims (and objectives through which these aims will be achieved), local demand and an appropriate budget. CABE Space – a specialist advisor to the UK Government on design and management of public open space – proposes eight possible models for successfully funding a quality greenspace:

  • Traditional local authority funding
  • Multi-agency public sector funding (including public partnerships with not-for-profit organisations)
  • Taxation initiatives
  • Opportunities via planning and development
  • Bonds and commercial finance
  • Self-generated income
  • Endowments
  • Voluntary sector involvement.

By ensuring that their site is appropriate to their management objectives, urban greenspace owners and/or managers can seek to ensure the sustainability of the site.

Interested, engaged and committed local communities who appreciate their local greenspace are vital to ensuring its sustainability. This is partly because their involvement can provide cost-effective management, but also because they develop a sense of ownership of the space that results in increased care and respect by the local community. Frequent use of a greenspace by diverse groups not only encourages increased use by minority groups, but also can be used to engage excluded groups and deter antisocial behaviour.

The challenge for today’s urban park and garden managers is to deliver sites that are inclusive of people from all walks of life, through quality habitats and appealing design that stimulates interest. For example, delivering a biodiverse site is not only good in environmental terms, but may also provide educational and recreational stimuli. Greenspaces mainly used by dog-walkers can deter those who are suspicious of dogs from using the site, and dog mess is unhygienic, unsightly, can cause changes in vegetation structure and will deter many potential users. The provision of good facilities, including benches, play areas, regularly emptied dog-waste bins, quality paths and attractive planting are significant steps towards encouraging diverse user groups.

The qualities of a successful greenspace include sustainability, inclusiveness, biodiversity, character, accessibility, adaptability and robustness. These are reflected in the Green Flag Award scheme, a mark of quality urban greenspace. The Green Flag is awarded to greenspaces demonstrating that they are welcoming, healthy, safe and secure, clean and well maintained, conservation- and heritage-minded, involve the community, well marketed and managed, and sustainable.

Case studies

Ropewalk Community Garden

Ropewalk Community Garden is an example of a cultural garden. Cultural gardens provide an opportunity to introduce people from different backgrounds to each other, as well as to the benefits of urban greenspace.

Multicultural gardening utilises plants and growing techniques familiar to different ethnic groups to stimulate interaction, community engagement and productivity (for example, of locally grown produce). While many of the plants, herbs and vegetables utilised may have been grown in the UK for their beauty, cultural gardening brings them together in a context relevant to the local community. The desire to grow vegetables to eat is universal, and can be used as a catalyst for the creation of urban greenspace in the form of a community garden.

Sheffield Botanical Gardens

Sheffield Botanical Gardens were originally designed by Robert Marnock in the 1830s, and cover 19 hectares. The gardens, both open and enclosed, contain a number of listed buildings. The site had become neglected, the buildings derelict and dilapidated, and the gardens and landscaping lost beneath overgrown vegetation. Sheffield City Council sought restoration in keeping with the original Victorian design, but adapted for modern needs. The garden’s focus is now on education and creating a centre for horticultural excellence. Funding for the restoration was sought from the Heritage Lottery Fund, match-funded against local contributions and fundraising.

The gardens were fully restored in 2005 at a cost of approximately £6.7 million. Restoration achievements included the buildings, plus 15 different garden areas. Collections feature plants from all over the world, including Mediterranean, Asian, American prairie-style, woodland and rock-and-water plantings, and the National Collections of Weigela and Diervilla are sited there. Staff and volunteer ‘friends’ continue to develop the planting throughout the gardens.

Thames Barrier Park

Thames Barrier Park is a formal garden situated in the London Borough of Newham, by the River Thames in east London. A former dock and industrial chemicals factory, the site was left contaminated after closure of the docks in the 1960s. Creation of the London Docklands Development Corporation in 1981 saw this and surrounding areas regenerated, mainly for housing and commercial development, but also for greenspace. The park was created by clearing the derelict land of physical structures and contaminated soils, and capping it with a capillary break layer and imported clayey soils. The park covers 8.9 ha, cost £12 million to construct, and has an annual budget of £700,000 per year for park management, landscape maintenance and marketing.

Thames Barrier Park aimed to be a multifunctional greenspace for the local population – it was to improve surrounding house and land prices, and was an integral part of a new tourist development plan. Newham and the other surrounding boroughs are ethnically diverse. A study was conducted in 2005 to investigate whether the park was meeting its objectives, and to suggest practical solutions to improve use of the park in the future. The study involved community postal questionnaires, on-site visitor surveys and focus groups.

The results from the visitor surveys and focus group showed that the majority of visitors were from the local community – they appreciated and visited most of the features in the park, and they undertook a wide range of activities in the park. But few people from neighbouring communities visited the park (reasons included that they had never heard of it; hadn’t time to visit; couldn’t access the park because of a disability; were afraid of intimidation). Certain age groups, such as teenagers, do not use the park (possibly because there is insufficient open space), and the park is rarely used for exercise (almost certainly due to its restricted size).

Although the focus group thought the park was a pleasant piece of greenspace that added value to the community in terms of improving the area as a place to live, the survey results suggest that the park is not reaching out to all members of the community. The ethnic mix of people visiting the park does not reflect census data for the neighbourhood. The results also suggest that the park predominantly attracts higher-income groups than is representative of the area.

These findings have implications for future provision of urban greenspace. Many greenspace regeneration projects are required to be age-inclusive, and most are designed to maximise access to all ethnic groups, but this may not be possible in reality, or desired by all sectors of the community.


Forest Research provides consultancy and research services to the Forestry Commission and external clients.

Further information

Forest Research Best Practice Guidance

Foot, K. and Sinnett, D. (2006). Do You Need to Cultivate before Woodland Establishment? (PDF-291K) Best Practice Guidance for Land Regeneration, BPG Note 3. Forest Research, Farnham.

Foot, K. and Sinnett, D. (2006). Imported Soil or Soil-Forming Materials Placement (PDF-191K). Best Practice Guidance for Land Regeneration, BPG Note 5. Forest Research, Farnham.

Hutchings, A, Sinnett, D. and Doick, K. (2006). Soil Sampling Derelict, Underused and Neglected Land prior to Greenspace Establishment (PDF-956K). Best Practice Guidance for Land Regeneration, BPG Note 1.  Forest Research, Farnham.

Kilbride, C. (2006). Application of Sewage Sludges and Composts (PDF-317K). Best Practice Guidance for Land Regeneration, BPG Note 6.  Forest Research, Farnham.

Moffat, A. (2006). Native and Non-Native Trees: Why and How to Choose (PDF-1264K). Best Practice Guidance for Land Regeneration, BPG Note 8. Forest Research, Farnham.

Moffat, A. (2006). Tree Seeding (PDF-1173K). Best Practice Guidance for Land Regeneration, BPG Note 10. Forest Research, Farnham.

Sellers, G. (2006). Fertiliser Application in Land Regeneration (PDF-447K). Best Practice Guidance for Land Regeneration, BPG Note 7. Forest Research, Farnham.

Sellers, G. (2006). Weed Control (PDF-414K). Best Practice Guidance for Land Regeneration, BPG Note 11. Forest Research, Farnham.

Sinnett, D. (2006). Maximising Biodiversity (PDF-289K). Best Practice Guidance for Land Regeneration, BPG Note 9. Forest Research, Farnham.

Other resources

Cabe Space (2004). The Value of Public Space: How High Quality Parks and Public Spaces Create Economic, Social and Environmental Value (PDF-2360K). Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, London.

DCLG (2002). Planning Policy Guidance 17: Planning for Open Space, Sport and Recreation. Department of Communities and Local Government. Stationery Office, London.

ODPM (2006). Enhancing Urban Green Space (PDF-795K). National Audit Office/Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Stationery Office, London.