There prevails an entirely worthy campaign to increase the presence of greenery as a habitat for wildlife and it may be near-heresy to suggest that it can be pushed too far. A natural look in public parks is now rightly preferred to municipal over-regimentation, either in planting out display flowerbeds or in unnecessary restriction on access to neatly manicured grass. However, a policy of reverting to nature should not be used as cover or excuse for years of under-funding maintenance which has led to the need to eliminate the cumulative shabbiness and restore its basic amenities.
The reasons why parks in urban areas are an important social need as well as a public pleasure have not changed from the Victorian period despite what ecologists might wish us to believe. The great Victorian movement to provide more open spaces for the general public was pioneered by familiar visionaries like Joseph Paxton. Dulwich Park was a gift to the public in this tradition from the Dulwich Estate.
A major Victorian park deserves to be kept that way. The Victorians were considerably better at supplying a number of public amenities than we are, especially when it comes to providing running water, public lavatories, sewage and land drainage. The Heritage Lottery Fund has correctly recognised that the restoration of the decaying basic infrastructure in Dulwich Park is a priority, and that expensive but often cosmetically less obvious projects should be undertaken first with capital funds available. Otherwise these and lack of adequate maintenance may soon produce more bio-diversity than we would wish to know about. Nature, left to itself, is pretty indiscriminating and has an undeveloped aesthetic instinct. If Dulwich Park lake reverts to a primeval swamp and rats abound or ragwort grows on the horse-rides, nature would be entirely satisfied. Most people might conclude that bio-diversity taken this far is largely for the birds.
The British have been particularly talented in the creation of gardens. As in architecture, fashions have succeeded each other and often recur. Rival schools of taste have hurled epithets at each other, often wrapped in "ism" which opponents have sometimes cheerfully adopted for themselves in the best traditions of yah-booh politics. Local authorities have often followed suit in adopting politically correct language in which to couch their policies. Behind this lies the practical skills and application needed to actually carry out and maintain public works. The Victorians had a bad press throughout much of the twentieth century, but some of this derogatory language now begins to look rather dated in turn. Perhaps the excessive use of terms 'natural' and 'ecological' will soon follow that of 'ornamental', 'decorative', and 'pastiche' as words of disdainful dismissal.
The realities of park management in Dulwich have not always been quite as the language has depicted them. The excuse has been used too often that the council cannot afford to employ the thirty staff which the Victorians specified as a necessary compliment. But the Horniman Gardens, which are about one- quarter of its size, have twelve full-time staff including gardeners dedicated only to that park and are kept to a much higher standard. Rosie Thornton has been trying to manage Dulwich Park for most of this year with a staff of just two! The Rangers, who usually seemed to be ranging elsewhere, have been disbanded. There may, by the end of the summer, appear a galaxy of community wardens, outreach officers and ecology officers but no actual gardeners. There will be one general-purpose maintenance contractor to mow open spaces throughout the entire borough of Southwark. Rosie will have no line management responsibilities. We must wait to see the realities behind the currently favoured language of park administration.