As Dulwich Park's bid for £4million of lottery money moves towards its second phase, worries are being raised about its impact on the park landscape. The potential loss of many trees is a particular concern.
The Heritage Lottery Fund's decision on the bid is due this summer. The scheme proposed by Landscape designers Land Use Consultants (LUC) offers undeniable pluses. Among them are: fully restored carriageways, horse ride and drainage; facilities for future watering; "wow-factor" plantings of shrubs, trees and flowers; an enlarged ecology area (the "squirrel enclosure"); and a cleaned-up and desilted lake with better water quality and new reed beds. However, the plans also envisage extensive tree removal. An estimated 160-170 trees are earmarked for felling, along with a further 30 to be heavily coppiced.
LUC admits that the proposed tree losses will be "drastic" - 200 trees represents nearly 10 per cent of the park's total tree population. At least a third will be around the lake, where leaf-fall and lack of light has partly contributed to poor water quality. Other areas of tree loss include the northern and southern ends of the walk that leads from the Court Lane gates past the café, the "Japanese" garden next to the bridge and the American garden. LUC says the losses are in part necessary to return the planting structure to its original Victorian design to fulfill the HLF's "heritage" brief. Many trees, and shrubs, it appears are "in the wrong place".
The Dulwich Society Wildlife Committee has seen the detailed plans and discussed the bid's current trees strategy. More than a century has elapsed since Sexby originally laid out his design on former farmland. The pressures and demands on parks have changed considerably since 1890. There is now much greater emphasis on the importance of ecology. In the light of those changes, we believe there are serious concerns about the scale of the tree losses proposed.
So what makes 2004 different from 1890? Any list would include consideration on the importance of:
Biodiversity - which means having a healthy wildlife population. The loss of a tenth of the park's tree cover would almost certainly lead to an immediate dip in wildlife populations. The park is home to at least four species of bat, including Daubenton's, which can eat up to 3,500 insects in a single night. The park is also home to several species of bird that are on the "red list" - species of high conservation concern. These include the song thrush, the lesser spotted woodpecker, the starling and the house sparrow. Mammalogists and ornithologists point out that suburban parks and gardens now act as refuges for animals and birds, since much "real" country is given over to intensively-managed monocultures. Old trees, dead wood and holes in trunks are vital for both birds and insects.
Cost. When the park opened, it had over 30 gardeners working in it. It could therefore afford "high-maintenance" horticulture. This, sadly, is no longer the case. Trees, by their nature, cost relatively little to maintain. Replacing them with rockeries, as proposed on the Broad Walk, is a serious hostage to council budgetary fortune.
Human health. Trees perform an extraordinary range of "ecosystem services". They provide shade from UV radiation - equivalent to a sun protection factor of between six and 10. They filter out the dust and traffic fumes that are linked to respiratory and heart disease. They screen out noise - one of the great modern causes of stress. They oxygenate and moisturize the atmosphere. The trees of Dulwich Park thus make a huge contribution to minimizing the effects of traffic and surrounding urban development.
Stress relief. Large scale tree losses will open up the park more to its urban surroundings, removing the sense of intimacy and seclusion that greenery provides. Research increasingly shows that "getting away from it all" - peace and relaxation in a natural setting - is the main reason people visit green spaces. However, the heritage brief emphasises opening up longer vistas, partly for historical reasons, which is one of the reasons for tree removal. But in 1890 there was no South Circular and no surrounding houses to mar the rural outlook. Arguably, people then didn't suffer from urban stress 2004-style, either.
Most of the items on this list simply weren't issues in 1890. Granted, everyone likes to look on a beautiful landscape - but our ideas of beauty have changed too. Should we be attempting to restore a historic landscape by recreating a "freeze-frame" moment in time? And is it reasonable that one of the first impacts of a much-anticipated boost to the park's fortunes - a once-in-a-lifetime injection of funds - should be the loss of much of its visible greenery? Many people will argue that we should be getting more trees, not fewer. There is an argument too for approving those aspects of the scheme for the planting of new shrubberies but not if it is at the expense of the destruction of older but healthy ones.
It's true that new trees are promised, but not, it seems, as part of the HLF bid - we will have to pay for these later out of donations or annual budgets. However, there is no commitment yet on numbers or placing. And, of course, new trees will take decades to reach the proportions - and value to other living things - of those they are replacing. Sensitive phasing of felling and replanting could also minimise the impact of such tree losses - but it seems that to conform to the HLF funding timetable, the bulk of the work would have to be done over 12 months. The result will almost certainly be that the park will look much barer, and will go on looking bare for quite some time.
At Crystal Palace park lottery funding was suspended after local protests at tree losses resulting from a new landscape design scheme. We are anxious this doesn't happen at Dulwich. LUC is adamant that it won't. We hope the consultants are right but we don't feel at all confident. If you share our concerns, please make your views known - to LUC, the HLF or local councillors
LUC is at 43 Chalton St London NW1 1JD, tel 0207 383 5784. Website: www.landuse.co.uk
Angela Wilkes, Chair, Wildlife Committee
Stella Benwell, Chair, Trees Committee