Observer column: 28 August 2015
As autumn unfolds and the late summer flush of colour begins to dwindle, it's a good time to reflect on the astonishing variety of award-winning parks, gardens and open spaces we have in Hastings, as well as the different pleasures, and challenges, they present.
Almost 40 percent of Hastings is public open space, ranging from country parks to seafront flowerbeds. Much of it is the spectacular Hastings Country Park, but there's also Alexandra Park, a formal urban park that gradually transforms into naturalised woodland; the restored St Leonards Gardens, with its collection of Victorian perennials; St Helen's Woods, where horses graze on ancient meadows; Combe Valley Countryside Park, a swathe of marsh and downland extending as far as Crowhurst; and much more. Yet despite pressure to identify sites for housing, we're creating more open spaces, with Speckled Wood now protected, and a new nature reserve at Ponds Wood.
But not all these green areas serve the same purpose, nor is their management the same. Some, for example the country park cliffs or Marline Valley, are Sites of Special Scientific Interest, afforded statutory protection because of the rare species their delicate habitats support. Here, the impact of human access is kept to a minimum, with management focused on preservation and natural progression. In others, such as the open spaces on the West Hill or Combe Valley, there's more scope for ideas, to maximise the enjoyment of visitors.
Ideas about how open spaces are managed are changing. In recent years, carpet bedding along the seafront and elsewhere has been replaced by drought-tolerant, perennial planting - easier to maintain, more environmentally sustainable, and equally attractive. Personally, I hope we keep some carpet bedding, but it's spectacularly wasteful.
Another idea that's gaining ground is the creation of meadows in areas that have traditionally been maintained as mown grass (which has about as much biodiversity as tarmac). Wildflower meadows are more attractive, support a greater diversity of flora and fauna, and are cheaper to maintain. We'll be looking at this across the borough and talking to the county council about managing some highway verges in the same way, although that is more controversial.
The way we use these open spaces needs further thought - do we get the best out of them? Ideas put forward for Combe Valley range from sports facilities to a music festival. And right in the heart of the town, White Rock Gardens is underused and undervalued, so we're talking to local businesses, residents and community groups about what can be done there, and how money could be raised to provide better facilities - a new swimming pool perhaps, an improved fitness centre, outdoor sports facilities and of course, enhanced pleasure gardens with sustainable planting. More detailed ideas will emerge for consultation soon.
We're lucky in Hastings to have so much open space, with such a variety of character and purpose. The trick to keeping these special is to get the delicate balance right between preservation and change - something to reflect upon in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.