“Greenspace networks are not the space left over after planning, or the spaces between buildings. They are a vital component of ever-larger urban settlements in all developed countries. We neglect them at our peril.”
Alan Barber is an advocate, activist, and critic who has worked tirelessly on behalf of Britain’s public parks and greenspaces for decades. Barber’s efforts at all levels – within communities, through university teaching, and in local and national government positions – has made real and lasting change in the way public parks are managed and prioritized in the United Kingdom. Barber is unfailingly passionate and unafraid to speak his mind. His recent appointment as a member of the Order of the British Empire stands in testament to his years of devotion and commitment to Britain’s public parks.
Alan Barber was born in Lancashire, UK, in 1942. His love of greenspace was cultivated at an early age; he apprenticed with a local parks department at age 16, and at 21 he began a two-year term of study at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Throughout the rest of his twenties, Barber learned about parks management by working “on the ground” jobs in Lancashire and Manchester.
Barber then became Parks Manager for the city of Bristol, UK. Working in this position, he came to hold many of his current positions on parks management and the role of parks in urban social life. In this role, he founded important and lasting public-private partnerships, increased parks programming, and introduced goal-based management systems imported from industry.
Barber repeatedly witnessed budget cuts leading to the ruin of parks programs and historic greenspaces. This inspired him to begin campaigning and consulting nationally for dedicated parks funding and management. In this role, he served as President of the Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management. In 1996, Barber co-wrote a position paper for Lord Rothschild that spurred the creation of a new grant-making parks initiative, funded by the national lottery, that became the largest investment in public parks in the UK; to date, over £300 million has been invested in revitalizing public greenspaces.
Barber went on to help found GreenSpace, a charity devoted to improving parks and involving communities in their care. He also has held several advocacy and teaching positions within government and universities, all devoted to better parks management and preservation.
In 1998, a House of Commons Select Committee – akin to a Congressional investigative hearing – met to consider the plight of public parks in the UK. Barber, who considered this a “real breakthrough,” served as a special advisor to the inquiry, and later to the government Urban Green Spaces Taskforce formed as a result. Barber helped to persuade both these bodies of the need for a national agency devoted to parks issues; in 2003, CABE Space – an addition to the UK’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) – was formed, and Barber was appointed a member of the Commission.
On April 7, 2009, Alan Barber was appointed a member of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen in recognition of his decades of advocacy on behalf of public parks. Upon receiving the prestigious award, Barber noted that: “I am still campaigning and writing about urban parks because I believe they are so important to the life of towns and cities. Their neglect in recent years has been scandalous, especially when they can do so much to encourage healthier lifestyles.”
Barber believes the biggest remaining challenge for greenspaces in the UK is “to reverse the steady decline in budgets for maintaining park systems in our towns and cities. Democracy is a much weaker force in the UK than in the USA. So much is dictated by Whitehall bureaucracy, rather than the wishes of local people. The silo-mentality in Whitehall means that nobody can link the welfare of children, which is a priority, to the care of the environment which children inhabit. A bit more attention to the latter and many of our serious problems with childcare would be reduced.”
The Role(s) and Management of Greenspace
Barber sees public parks and greenspaces as inherently multifunctional, and believes that their management must (but too often doesn’t) acknowledge this characteristic. He views parks as part of a larger ecological, cultural, social, and educational system.
This understanding of parks’ multifunctionality leads to Barber’s CLERE model for parks management. The model highlights what Barber sees as the five key interrelated functions of urban greenspace – its role in Community development and education; as a Landscape with conservation requirements; as an Ecosystem that provides natural services to a city; as a resource for Recreation; and finally, as a contributor to the local Economy. Each of these functions implies an accompanying set of management issues and goals, all of which must be addressed holistically for the greenspace to achieve its fullest potential.
The proper management of urban greenspace has farther-reaching benefits, as well. It contributes positively to national and global problems, including environmental issues like climate change and air quality, human well-being, and economic prosperity. Moreover, quality public space fosters and supports civic engagement and community spirit. If citizens feel alienated from their public spaces and institutions, they are less likely to participate (formally or informally) in governance of their communities. Thus, careful stewardship of public space is integral for guaranteeing meaningful democratic participation. This is a cyclical pattern: the less democratic the governing bodies, the more institutionally dysfunctional, bureaucratic, and self-interested the government – and in turn, a government of this sort won’t be a good steward of green space.
The Design Profession
Barber considers the landscape design profession to have “lost the plot,” in his words; he thinks landscape architecture education must refocus on natural and ecological features, rather than cold, sterile architectural elements. He says he “would remove all [landscape architects’] paving catalogues and replace them with plant catalogues. I would ask them to contemplate a world of beautiful colours, of three dimensions and with no geometrical shapes.”
With characteristic wit, Barber describes the need for design professionals to truly listen to the public that will use these spaces, and (echoing William H. Whyte) to have a role in arranging their own spatial experience: “I must have read a thousand articles on seats in public places but I never once read that anyone had asked people which they liked to sit on. I like Paris’s Jardin du Luxembourg because visitors are given a choice of seat, and how they are arranged. In English public places immovable benches are always placed next to trash bins because the architect presumes the public like to sit next to stale food and wasps.”
Design and Management
Barber argues in favor of a closer, more collaborative working relationship between designers and managers of public spaces, and finds that design too often occurs without consideration of how people will actually use the space. Parks, in particular, must be well-maintained and well-programmed to live up to their potential as useful public spaces. He says: “Design and management have to be brought much closer together. I have found good design solutions to management problems but only where designers and managers speak the same language and where they can both communicate with people.”
Good management gives public parks the ability to adapt in response to changing user needs. Fixed architectural elements are not easily adaptable and are “incapable of self-renewal,” in Barber’s words; however, parks can be continuously renewed when managers intervene in an informed, thoughtful, publicly-minded manner.
Rather than depending on government to make necessary changes to public space, Barber puts his faith in grassroots “people-power” movements. He notes the importance of local community groups (often “friends of the parks” organizations) in influencing the political agenda and engaging with public space. Barber also extols tools like PPS’s Place Game and CABE’s Spaceshaper, both of which involve communities in critically appraising their own local spaces.
Though Barber’s writings and work focus primarily on public parks and greenspace, he commends recent architectural innovations like green roofs and walls, noting that “[t]here are few modern buildings in the world that wouldn’t look better covered in plants.” Barber also praises Prince Charles and his views on architecture: “He has a real understanding of the subject, much greater than many of his architect critics. I wish he would champion parks and public places more often. His interventions are well judged and very influential.”
“I love public parks; the best seem to effortlessly capture the essence of civilized living in modern urban society.”
“Nothing repays its investment as well as a good public park.”
“In my writing, I am often found campaigning and confrontational, mostly towards an establishment, which does not seem to care.”
Around the World in Twenty-One Parks. This annotated collection of films of Barber’s favorite parks provides wonderful insight into what makes parks work.
Green Future. Greenspace, 2005.
Time to Bite the Bullet. Green Places, March 2009.
How Green is My Eco-Town? Green Places, November 2008 (with Junfang Xie).
The Final Assessment. Green Places, March 2008.
See also Sarah Jackson’s excellent profile of Alan Barber in Parks and Gardens UK, on which the Biography section of this Placemaker Profile draws.
Alan Barber may be reached at: alan.barber [at] blueyonder.co.uk. He particularly welcomes contact from students.
– Karen Levy