The long and winding road

Date: 7th July 2011

Publication: Green Places

The tale of Liverpool International Festival Gardens has more twists and turns as the site itself. Like so many great stories, it tells of enchantment, love, intrigue, destitution and salvation...

In 1984, a former household tip site adjacent to the River Mersey was transformed into the country’s fi rst ever garden festival site. The International Garden Festival was a concept born from the Conservative government to regenerate Liverpool and drive tourism to the city in the wake of the Toxteth riots and industrial decline.

The land was originally reclaimed from the River Mersey in 1957 for oil storage and household waste disposal. In 1981, Merseyside Development Corporation acquired the site and after reclamation it was selected as the favoured site for the Garden Festival.

A five month pageant from May to October,the International Garden Festival attracted some 3.4 million visitors with its mix of ornamental gardens from all parts of the world and the centrepiece Festival Hall which contained various floral displays.

The site included 60 individual gardens, including the spectacular Oriental Gardens with pagodas which were originally built in China and shipped over to Liverpool in 1984, having been donated by the Chinese and Japanese governments.

There was also a walk of fame, featuring numerous stars connected with Liverpool, a light railway system and masses of iconic public artwork including the Yellow Submarine now found at Liverpool John Lennon Airport, as well as the red dragon slide designed by a winner of a high profi le Blue Peter competition for the launch of the festival.

The redevelopment of the site cost 12.5 million to the public purse, equivalent to an estimated 25m today.

For many British visitors, the Garden Festival was the first opportunity for them to see international gardens, in particular Chinese and Japanese gardens, environmentally sensitive design and rare trees and shrubs, on their own doorstep. It opened the eyes of the British public to an almost magical world of possibilities and, according to the Garden History Society, is one of the main reasons the British became reacquainted with their gardens.

At the time, the Rt Hon Lord Aberconway, the festival’s commissioner general, wrote in the offi cial guide: “The advantages to Liverpool will be tremendous. Apart from commercial benefi t there will be left an undulating parkland, a number of the specialised gardens and a riverside walkway running the length of the site and in due course extending down river as far as Pier Head.”

Alas, this dream was not to be. When the festival closed its doors, the City Council, with insufficient funding to be able to maintain the park, was unwilling to take it on. A large part of the site was developed into residential housing.

Some unsuccessful short-term uses of the remaining park ensued, but it was not until 1990 that planning permission was given for a leisure park, known as Pleasure Island. This operated until 1996 with limited success.

Thereafter, the site was unused and fell into a state of total disrepair and neglect and became the focus for antisocial behaviour.

The lease for ‘Pleasure Island’ was sold in 1996 and the subsequent years saw sporadic interest from a range of developers, whose input only served to provoke considerable opposition from the local community, who still held dear the events and promises of 1984.

No further development took place and the closed gardens became more dilapidated, attracting more antisocial behaviour.

Despite the investment in regeneration, Liverpool maintained its unwanted place at the top of the government’s Deprivation Indexes and the Garden Festival, supposedly part of the solution, was now very much part of the problem.

In 2004, the lease was purchased by property developer Langtree, with a view to implementing a high quality mixed-use development within a new Waterfront Park. Crucially, Langtree’s plans meant 36ha of parkland would be retained and restored, including the Japanese Gardens.

Langtree’s vision and ability to bring in partners such as NWDA and the Land Trust was critical to ensuring the scheme succeeded. The key to agreement between the Land Trust and Langtree was that the developer would provide an endowment to cover the future management costs of the park. This meant that the big mistakes of the past would not be repeated. This time the park would have a sustainable future that would continue to deliver community benefi t for many generations.

When Langtree’s planning application was granted by the City Council in 2007 it looked like the restored site would take its place and play a key role in Liverpool’s City of Culture celebrations. However, there was still more problems for this troubled green space; the high profi le nature of the site meant Central Government had little option but to ‘call in’ the application and hold a comprehensive public enquiry. The results fi rmly backed the proposals, but by this time the downturn in the housing market was at its peak and the project was now looking unlikely to progress at any pace.

Then, at the end of 2009, Langtree secured a 2.1m grant from the NWDA, allowing the gardens to be restored and reopened to the public. A separate contribution of 1.6m from the Northwest European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) brought the total package of investment to 3.7m. Aside from bringing forward both the residential development and the restoration of the park, the NWDA money also covers the management and maintenance of the park for five years, within which time it is anticipated the development on the balance of the site will be able to progress and therefore the long-term future of the park will be secured in the Land Trust’s care.

Work began on site in 2009 by clearing the litter and graffi ti that tarnished the historic parkland. The Land Trust appointed Groundwork Merseyside as the managing agent for the site following an extensive tender process which attracted applications from across the world.

Groundwork Merseyside is responsible for developing the public use of the site and is working with The Land Trust in engaging the community to make the site a success once more with a programme of training events and activities that will deliver health, wellbeing and leisure benefi ts across all sectors of the community.

The centrepiece of the park will be the rejuvenated oriental gardens. Based around the restored lake, the gardens will provide the cultural focus of the new waterfront park, with the restored pavilion acting as a gathering and performance space.

Landscape designer Professor Masao Fukuhara travelled to Liverpool to assist the restoration process. Fukuhara, now in his eighties, is the world’s leading academic on the design of ornamental Japanese gardens and originally worked on the site when the garden’s were fi rst created. His colleague, landscape architect Satoru Izawa oversaw the garden’s recreation, which has been restored from scratch to resemble the original Japanese garden as closely as possible.

As well as planting fl owers and shrubs, pruning the trees and positioning rocks, they gifted a sign from Japan which has been placed at one of the garden’s two gateways.

Izawa has now made two visits to the UK since the restoration work began 12 months ago. He said: “I’m pleased to see how sympathetic the work is to a garden we would create in Japan. It is important that Japanese gardens are formed adhering to our strict design values and that they refl ect formations which occur in the natural world. Liverpool’s Japanese garden is being delivered with great care and attention to detail, making it one of the most genuine Japanese gardens in the world.”

Both of the iconic 1984 Chinese pagodas had suffered the adverse effects of weather, and one had sunk into the ground. Experts from around the world have been involved in their restoration. A specialist team of artists has restored their painted beams, completing the painstaking task of recreating the original vivid colours. A paint expert from the University of Shanghai was also consulted.

Three authentic Japanese lanterns and a water basin were made in Tokyo and have now been placed in the garden. But the main focus is the ‘azumaya’ or rest house, which was redesigned and rebuilt after the original was burned to the ground.

The care and attention to detail with which the Japanese garden is being restored will make it one of the most genuine Japanese gardens in the world.

An axial walkway, called the Grand Axis, will link the valley bottom with the main viewing areas. The Grand Axis is the main viewing point of the site and has 360 degree views. The Woodland Trails area of the site will retain their natural characteristics for local residents and visitors alike to enjoy.

The ‘Hub’, a remodelled bank, will form the southern edge to the park and provide a crucial key link to the promenade. There will also be a biodiversity area which will include accessible terrestrial habitats and wetland areas, including reed beds, open water and water margins, constructed to enhance biodiversity and be used as major educational resource. Indeed, the neglect which the site once suffered from has delivered one legacy – with nature being given a free reign for a quarter of a century, the gardens now boast an almost unique ecosystem with its mixture of flora and fauna. The layers of overgrown weeds have been slowly peeled away and trees and shrubs carefully trimmed back to allow the gardens to breathe again.

The site has excellent access arrangements with a rail station and bus stop close to the entrance, as well as the riverside promenade, busy with walkers and cyclists, linking directly with the Liverpool world heritage waterfront.

The end result will be a high quality, engaging park that will offer a unique and varied space to day trippers, not only from Liverpool and Merseyside, but across the UK, and will also attract overseas visitors.

The park will benefi t from a range of community-based activities and events which will take place throughout the year and allow every part of the community to engage with the site, making it a park for our time. And this time, it will be possible to ensure that it can be managed for many future generations.

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