Ireland Communities and society

Cork City Council’s Social distancing park ranger programme: winner of the Chambers Ireland Community Engagement award

The lockdown measures introduced at the end of March 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic severely limited the movement and avenues for daily exercise for the 210,000 citizens of Cork City.

Realising the implications of the restrictive measures announced by the Taoiseach on March 27th 2020, the City Council’s Covid-19 Response Team made an immediate decision to ensure its parks and amenities continued to remain open for public use.

The aims and objectives of this initiative were to ensure that the general public continued to benefit from the many parks, recreation areas and amenity walkways of Cork City in a safe and enjoyable manner while promoting social distancing among park users.

They included the following:

  • To ask and encourage people not to gather in groups of more than 4 people outside of an immediate family unit.
  • To positively promote City Council facilities at a time of unprecedented social and national apprehension.
  • To promote the physical and mental health & well-being of citizens.
  • To build a partnership and trusting relationship between the rangers, local communities and park users
  • To ensure all users were comfortable in the knowledge that public health protocols were being observed in park and amenity areas.

The aims were fully achieved with Cork City Council being the only local authority in the country to undertake a programme of this nature and to keep its Parks supervised and open during the lockdown in line with Government and NPHET directives and guidelines.

Verbal and written feedback from the public was very positive and indicative of the value of the initiative

The initiative highlighted the importance of providing an outlet for citizens to partake in physical exercise for general and mental health and wellbeing. Staff were redeployed from across the entire City Council workforce to participate in this initiative. Professional, technical, administrative, craft and outdoor grades were integrated into operational teams to deliver the programme. The Council saw this as an opportunity to create a more meaningful relationship with its diverse citizenry.  Cork City Council identified that it was essential to provide safe environments for its citizens in order that their lives remain as normal as possible during these stressful and uncertain times. The Social Distancing Park Ranger Programme was also a completely new role for Council staff- the aims and objectives of which were relayed during induction/training sessions.

The message to the public was pitched in advance to members of local and national media:

  • Print media – The Examiner, The Echo
  • Radio – Cork’s 96 FM and Cork’s RedFM..
  • Social Media – Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
  • Cork City Council’s website.

The initial target groups were the local communities who, following the government directive, were limited in movement to two kilometres from home.

This measure saw a major increase in the numbers of people using parks and amenity areas for exercise and as an avenue for socialising outside of their own domestic environment. Off-peak times for availing of these facilities were specifically allocated to the elderly, disabled and more vulnerable in our society.

The initiative was exclusively resourced and funded by Cork City Council. Over 150 Rangers participated in the programme assigned to 20 parks. The service operated 7 days a week on a shift basis (11 am to 6 pm) giving parks users confidence in using the park and the added reliability of a friendly face they could talk to. Rangers even helped park users to celebrate major milestones e.g. a 40th wedding anniversary!

The provision of suitable welfare facilities was essential for staff as a number of locations did not have either depots or pavilions. In a number of locations, the use of community/sports pavilions was agreed with resident sports clubs and community groups. These premises were released to the Council, at no cost, for the duration of the programme. The City Council engaged directly with Community Associations, Sports Clubs and other stakeholders to see how best this could be achieved. The speed and level of engagement from each community group meant that the service could be provided within two weeks of lockdown, commencing on Easter Saturday, April 11th

Some of the quantifiable benefits of the programme include the following:

  • A large proportion of the city population live in apartments or terraced homes with no access to a garden or courtyard and the opportunity to access parks and amenities, knowing public health protocols were being supervised, was highly valued by these residents.
  • Parents of children with disabilities and special needs, whose regular services and supports were not available, came to rely heavily on parks and amenities as the alternative source of stimulation and support for their individual child.
  • People with underlying health conditions and who needed a break from home felt comfortable and safe knowing the amenity they visited was being managed to ensure compliance with public health protocols.
  • People living on their own and whose normal social outlet was not accessible came to rely on the park as their means of social contact and in many cases this was a friendly chat with the ranger.

Based on available recorded data for attendances at parks and amenity areas, it transpired that there was a 73% increase in park usage equating to more than 1.5 million visits to the facilities during this lockdown period.

The initiative has shown that a model of this type can be very successfully deployed in the future either in the event of an emergency situation arising again or as a structured partnership with the community sector to positively promote community development projects. The Council proved itself very capable of turning a hazardous pandemic with little or no advance warning into an extremely constructive community engagement process.

In the long term, it is envisaged that this programme will remain an element of the City’s emergency response into the future.

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