At the southern edge of Lambeth lies Streatham Common, and within it is the Rookery, a listed formal garden. Named after the property that had stood on the site since 1786, the land was acquired in 1912 after a campaign by local residents, landscaped, and opened to the public in 1913.
Government funding for green spaces has decreased significantly over the last decades, and a 2012 public meeting held by the Friends of Streatham Common in response to these cuts led to the formation of Streatham Common Co-operative (SCCoop) in 2013.
In February 2016, SCCoop became the only community-run not-for-profit social enterprise with direct responsibility for a Lambeth park. While SCCoop's initial focus has been largely on the Rookery, the plan is that, by the end of 2016, Lambeth Council will hand over management of the whole Common to SCCoop.
SCCoop is directly accountable to the local community, and its flat structure – one manager and a handful of staff – makes it both efficient and responsive to local needs. Fundraising activities are central to its mission: seasonal events, activity days and performances raise both funds and awareness, and all profits are put into services. Support from local business sponsors is essential, and applications for outside funding have also proved worthwhile: the recent White Garden restoration, for instance, was funded in part by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund secured by the Friends of Streatham Common.
Parks budgets were cut by 50% in 2016, however, meaning that Lambeth Council no longer funds any planting in the Rookery, and that SCCoop is delivering services for significantly smaller sums than Veolia had available to them. This increased austerity, mirrored in public green spaces across the country, has proved challenging. In response, SCCoop has recruited volunteers specifically focused on fund-raising, in addition to those who assist with the planning and maintenance of planting.
Local authority cuts are impacting parks across the country, and in July 2016 the Communities and Local Government Committee launched an inquiry into this issue. Alternative management and funding models, such as mutuals and trusts, are being considered, and SCCoop has responded to the Committee's invitation to submit data relating to
The Greater London National Park City initiative is also a positive contribution to this debate: making London a `national park city’ would involve a bold reimagining of the city's relationship with its green spaces.
In addition to changes to funding, changing attitudes to the issue of environmental sustainability in planting design are affecting the way the Rookery is managed. In updating the Rookery's planting, SCCoop manager Dom Leary has tackled the issue of how to manage those beds that have for many years been planted with 'carpet bedding': temporary displays of annual plants in geometric patterns.
While some public parks have continued this tradition – which was very popular with the Victorians – Leary feels that it's essential to make a change: “We need to plant in a way which is more beneficial to nature and more environmentally sustainable. And of course we need to bear in mind costs. The current approximate costs for each of the beds in the Rookery are around two to three thousand pounds, and this needs replanting twice a year. In a hot summer they need regular watering – last year we were watering on some days for at least two hours morning and evening.”
The last of the carpet bedding was removed from the Old English Garden this year, and replaced with hardy, sustainable perennial planting designed by Alison Alexander working with volunteers from the Rookery Design Group. The layout of the new herb planting in the northern beds echoes the formality of carpet bedding, while the sundial beds now contain a permanent planting of evergreen succulents, perennials and bulbs offering year-round structure and interest.
Meanwhile, volunteers working with Leary on plans to revitalise the Old English Garden's Long Border are developing colourful schemes inspired in part by field trips to Christopher Lloyd and Fergus Garrett's garden at Great Dixter – a good model for the juxtaposition of new ideas with existing formal boundaries. But while the northern beds were funded by the Friends of Streatham Common, and local solicitors Anthony Gold footed the bill for the sundial beds, the search for funding for the Long Border has so far proved fruitless.
Community involvement in the running of the Rookery, and the Common as a whole, has been very positive. Local residents feel strongly engaged with the management of this vibrant space, and it can also be argued that a shake-up of planting styles was overdue. What is not clear, however, is how much of the responsibility for such an important resource can – or should – be shouldered directly by the community: a more considered sharing of this responsibility among a wider spectrum of stakeholders could be the way forward.