New York's High Line park, built on an abandoned railway line.

New York's High Line park, built on an abandoned railway line. Photo: Debbie Cuthbertson

Who looks after, or should look after, public parks is a question that arises from the recent debate about Green Square, in Kingston, which was aired in The Canberra Times this month.

Does the call for grass, presumably irrigated, to replace the 2010 planting of drought-resistant spiky plants, notwithstanding their architectural design quality and presumably ecological correctness, have merit?

The landscape design of a public space such as Kingston's Green Square is the government's domain. 

Providing grass on which people may sit and children play is not a cheap option in the long term. Nevertheless it is one many expect - and not unreasonably so - of a small urban park next to shops and cafes.

However, the questions of responsibility for reinstalling grass or any other landscape treatments, who funds and who maintains them are legitimate and need to be addressed.

Traditionally, government agencies have provided and maintained public parks. That owners in the Green Square complex have offered to pay for the grass and have obtained support for the move is thought-provoking.

The answer to whether the practice should be welcomed with open arms is not as straightforward as at first may seem. The adage ''fools rush in where angels fear to tread'' has relevance.

I am not suggesting the Territory and Municipal Services Directorate would rush to cash in on this private support without considering responsibility. To rush in would invite unintended consequences, not least, for example, in the realm of public liability.

The landscape design of a public space such as Green Square is the government's domain, though this does not proscribe public participation. Does this mean the government foots the total bill unaided by private input for materials, labour and maintenance because this has been the modus operandi? The answer is no but with strict provisos. It would be unwise for public agencies just to invite or to accept private funding from individuals or the private sector willy-nilly; TAMS knows this.

There are international examples of parks, reserves and gardens under the management of government agencies with significant complementary private funding and management.

This model is where trusts and/or elected boards of management in partnership with government bear responsibility for planning and design decisions, management, maintenance, curatorship and handling of such matters as public liability.

These are often special circumstances, but whether similar arrangements would work in Canberra is worth considering.

One striking example is the elevated park, High Line, in New York. It is one of the most beautiful and poetic modern city parks I have seen.

Epitomising the idea of nature in the city and using native plants in a sophisticated, elegant design this linear park is on a former elevated railway line 18 metres above street level. It winds between buildings - former warehouses and apartment blocks - and in West Manhattan has magnificent views over the Hudson River.

The rail line was decommissioned in 1980. A group founded in 1999 by residents, Friends of the High Line, fought for the line's preservation and transformation at a time when the historic structure was under threat of demolition.

It is now a non-profit conservation group working with New York's parks and recreation department to make sure the High Line is maintained as an extraordinary public space for all visitors to enjoy. There is an extensive board of directors.

The friends raise private funds to support more than 90 per cent of the park's operations.

Work is underway to create an endowment for the park's future operation. This is, after all, the United States where people enthusiastically donate to such causes.

Another example nearer home is the Centennial and Moore Park Trust, in Sydney.

The trust, with eight members, is responsible to the NSW environment minister, employs about 60 staff and has a seven-member executive with experience in such fields as law, town planning, asset management, sport and recreation and lease management.

The trust is responsible for long-term planning and day-to-day management of three parks (Centennial, Moore and Queens).

In keeping with the parks' historic significance, the NSW government responsibility is with the office of environment and heritage within the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

Overall management is guided by legislation, in particular the Centennial and Moore Park Trust Act 1983.

Interestingly, there is a historic example of public funding of an early planting scheme in Canberra on Limestone Avenue.

It was undertaken by the Australian Natives Association in 1928 and involved commemorative planting in the median strip and placing of two seats with plaques noting the work of the association.

In 1925, the Federal Capital Commission suggested Australian organisations might wish to fund planting of avenues or individual trees and, in 1927, the association sought the commission's approval for its scheme.

Are there any indicators in these examples of possible new approaches to maintaining our city's public parks and open spaces, which form a significant element of the democratic open space framework for which Canberra is known?

They are the smaller end of, and complement, the hills, ridges and valleys of the National Capital Open Space System.

With increasing demands on its resources, perhaps now is the time for the ACT government to investigate public involvement in shared management of our parks, or selected examples.

This can be done only through considered examination of options and in the first case, test sites. Would any community groups be interested? Is there potential interest from the commercial sector?

If there is, perhaps options for management in the form of boards or trusts as well as memorandums of understanding might be explored.

Whatever, such arrangements are complicated and not to be undertaken lightly.

Ken Taylor is an emeritus professor with the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies at the Australian National University.