Whitfield Gardens re-opened this month after the completion of an eight month major refurbishment project by Camden Council, allowing visitors to get a closer look at the newly restored Fitzrovia Mural, and take a break and relax in the only public open space along Tottenham Court Road.
The space was immediately used by a lot of people — demonstrating the need for such facilities, and the extra seating, if not particularly comfortable, was a welcome rest for the feet of passers by and those wanting to briefly get outside during Lockdown.
Those who spoke to Fitzrovia News commented that the new lighting is a welcome improvement, giving better illumination at night and providing a sense of safety. However, the greatly reduced greenery made the place look bare and was described as a “desert” in one comment. And then there is the thorny subject of ongoing maintenance.
Sophie Thompson, director of LDA, who created the designs for Whitfield Gardens, said: “When we first listened to the community there was a strong desire to create a safer, more welcoming and sociable green space.
“Through the introduction of attractive and biodiverse planting, pop-up power and movable furniture for events, a restored Fitzrovia mural, long table dining and comfortable seating, we really hope that everyone can enjoy Whitfield Gardens again,” said Thompson.
Councillor Adam Harrison, cabinet member for a sustainable Camden said that the “rejuvenation” of Whitfield Gardens is an important part of the West End Project.
“Work undertaken to revive this much cherished local space, includes a planting scheme that thrives in shady locations, plus better accessibility as the gardens now allow visitors to cross easily between Tottenham Court Road and Whitfield Street/Tottenham Street.
“The new square also provides space for people to stop and enjoy, as well as a space for future events. We also remind everyone who visits the gardens to use the space responsibly and help us keep it tidy by disposing of their litter properly,” said Harrison.
Keeping it all tidy is a moot point. The cleaning and maintenance was a hot topic at public meetings leading up to the final design of the park. Local residents, community groups, and business owners expressed concern about about a lack of commitment by Camden to clean the green areas and replace the planting that inevitably gets trashed at such a busy location.
The refurbishment was carried out by Camden’s parks contractor idverde at a cost of nearly £900,000 out of Camden’s West End Project budget. This is a huge sum of money compared with the meagre amount Camden tends to spend on ongoing maintenance.
The previous landscape design of the park unveiled in the spring of 2011 had only been kept for nine years before Camden decided to rip it out and redesign it. That previous layout had itself replaced a design revealed at the turn of the millennium. There is an ongoing saga of repeated capital spending and lack of revenue spending at this open space.
In July 2019 Camden parks department admitted that the grounds maintenance contract with idverde for cleaning the greenery was only £1,200 a year. A sum that is hopelessly inadequate for such a heavily used public open space which is open 24 hours a day, next to such a busy street and tube station in central London.
The emptying of the litter bins and sweeping of the hard standing areas is carried out separately by Camden’s street cleansing contractor Veolia.
Fitzrovia News asked Camden a number of questions about its commitment to maintenance at the park.
We asked: Does the £900,000 capital cost include replacing planting if it dies or gets vandalised?
“The contract with idverde includes a three-year defect period in which plants, which fail to establish, will be replaced at no extra cost. This does not cover any plants that might be vandalised,” said Camden.
How does Camden plan to maintain the greenery? What is the planned budget for annual maintenance of the green areas that are vital to meet the objective of Camden’s Biodiversity Action Plan and to remove rubbish from the green areas that was previously complained about?
“The grounds maintenance contract with idverde is performance focussed, and they are required to keep the horticultural assets maintained to contract standards.
“Improving the biodiversity value of the green spaces managed by the Council is integral to how the service operates. This includes relaxed mowing (sic) and increasing the biodiversity value of planting as well as the design of new spaces.
“The design responds to concerns raised by the local community to tackle the issue of rubbish and anti-social behaviour at this location. The site will be inspected on a daily basis and the Council will work with its contractors to keep the site clean and tidy.
“The design for Whitfield Gardens was informed by engagement in October 2019 and incorporate ‘secure by design’ elements to respond to the concerns around anti-social behaviour by removing many of the dark areas and increasing natural surveillance on the site,” said Camden.
What is the expected life of the new seating and other furniture and fittings at the park?
“There is no specific lifespan for the furniture and fittings. The furniture elements are constructed chiefly of a hard-wearing hard wood which would be expected to last for many years,” says Camden.
The restoration of the Fitzrovia Mural was carried out by Globat Street Art at a cost of £70,000 from the council’s West End Project budget.
Lee Bofkin, CEO and co-founder of Global Street Art, said: “It’s been an honour to work alongside Camden Council to restore this historic mural. We have investigated many information sources to assess how the mural would have looked when it was first painted. By recreating the mural from scratch, replacing all of the old render, we hope the new mural lasts at least another forty years.”
The restoration is a near exact copy of the original but unfortunately has already been daubed with graffiti within a week of the park being opened.
An anti-graffiti coating means that unwanted additional street art can be jet-washed away but someone — possibly a council contractor — has rather clumsily painted over the “tags” that appeared over the first week or so. Fitzrovia News understands that the anti-graffiti coating is only likely to last for 12 to 18 months before having to be redone.
History already seems to be repeating itself at Whitfield Gardens.
Editorial note. Fitzrovia News obtained the cost of the contracts under the Freedom of Information Act. Unlike the contract for Alfred Place, Camden chose not to make public the report. Our first FOI request for the report of the contract with idverde was partially refused. However we asked for a review of our request and this was successful.