Sunday 18 September 2011

Open House (1): Margaret McMillan Park

As the park is literally on my doorstep, I had a gentle start to Open House weekend. Margaret McMillan Park was transformed last year; today I'd hear from the architects, BDP, about the process behind that transformation. Any concerns that a tour of somewhere I already know well might be dull were unfounded. The insight into the design background was genuinely interesting.

Leading from New Cross Station to the market and the Albany Theatre on Douglas Way, the park doubles as a significant thoroughfare for pedestrians and cyclists. However, consultation had indicated that many local people found it uninviting: it was overgrown, run down, and felt unsafe. The brief, then, was to transform the old park into something more inviting.

The project was made more challenging by a tight timescale, just nine months from commission to completion. In this time, almost all of the existing park was ripped out (most trees were kept, however) and replaced with an entirely new design.

To encourage people to enter the park - and realise that it even is a park - two key changes were made. First, a straight, wide path leads through so its role as a route between High Street and station is clear. Second, large shrubs, hedges, fences and so on were removed so that the area is opened out. Borders are marked by low granite benches rather than high, overgrown hedges; the playground is a natural part of the park rather than a separate, fenced-off section.

So that people might linger, the architects included both granite and wooden benches, and some picnic tables. During consultation, residents were actually dubious of these (and I wouldn't have disagreed) but in fact, they work well. The park is used by more, and more diverse, people than used to be the case. Our tour guide was particularly pleased that many locals buy lunch at the market and eat it here - so much so that extra bins had to be added soon after the park opened.

The park's most distinctive feature is its vertical posts. These are of treated oak, set into concrete, and designed both to give the park its own identity and to divide it into 'rooms'. (I'm not sure about the latter...) Although a lot of people expressed concern about how well they would survive, they are proving durable. Indeed, the longevity of the park has been considered throughout: not only were materials chosen to last and plants carefully chosen, but a ten-year maintenance plan was put in place and adopted by the Council.

This concern for the future was particularly reassuring. There were a number of local people on the tour, and I'm sure we were all pleased that this newly-attractive space should remain so for some years to come.

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