England & Wales Communities and society, Culture, sport and tourism, Health and social care

Parks: celebrating their true value


How important can parks be in the general order of things? asks Janet Sillett

When social care is under huge pressure and council budgets are squeezed everywhere? Parks? Nice for Spring bulbs maybe or a quick stroll with the dog; a kickabout or a snooze when the weather improves. But seriously – parks?

Over 37 million people regularly use the 27,000 parks and green spaces across the UK.

So yes, this is serious. Ninety-two per cent of local authority parks departments have experienced budget reductions in the past three years, and 95 per cent of parks managers expect to be faced with further reductions in the next three years (The State of UK Public Parks 2016 Heritage Lottery Fund). Nothing surprising there of course.

And this does matter. The recent CLG select committee report Public Parks spells out why it matters.

Parks help to improve our health and sense of wellbeing – both individually and collectively. Community was one of the most frequent words used when people responded to the inquiry. The University of Leeds, describes parks as: “places where history is made, both in terms of major public events — political rallies, mass meetings, demonstrations and civic celebrations — and in terms of people’s intimate lives — their romances, friendships, family outings and personal commemorations.”

A study in the Netherlands showed that every 10 per cent increase in exposure to green space resulted in a reduction of five years in age in terms of expected health problems (Groenewegen et al 2003) with similar benefits found by studies in Canada (Villenveuve et al 2012) and Japan (Takano et al 2002). How can this value be measured?

Research from the University of Exeter concluded that green spaces in England contribute £2.2bn to public health. Edinburgh City Council has employed a social return on investment model which concluded that for every £1 of investment in parks, around £12 of benefits are delivered, with a higher return when money is invested in premier central parks. And parks and green spaces have an impact on health inequalities – living in areas with green spaces is associated with significantly less income-related health inequality, weakening the effect of deprivation on health (Mitchell and Popham 2008). In greener areas, all-cause mortality rates are only 43 per cent higher for deprived groups, compared to 93 per cent higher in less green areas.

Yet we know that green space and parks aren’t distributed equally. The most affluent 20 per cent of wards in England have five times the amount of green space as the most deprived 10 per cent and that many people of Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds live in the most deprived wards in the UK. The committee’s report highlights a study which found that “the quality of, access to, and use of urban green space was a significant predictor of general health for people of African Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Pakistani origin and other BME groups, who were also those with the poorest health”. Twenty per cent of young people from lower income families have no access to local green space to play outdoor sport, compared with 12 per cent from higher income families. Parks are very important for children in all kinds of ways – many children responded to the select committee’s call for evidence. They can provide somewhere exciting to play, to explore nature, to exercise and run around. For some children they will be the only places to escape overcrowded or poor housing.

Parks are of immense value to our communities. They face huge challenges – particularly funding. How have councils responded – by reducing costs, increasing the income generated from parks and using “Friends of the Park” schemes and volunteers. This has helped, but there have still been temporary or permanent closure of facilities, deteriorating standards of maintenance and health and safety, reductions in service levels and reduced ability to enforce regulations leading to more anti-social behaviour. Heritage Lottery Fund money, though substantial, will not be enough to stem further decreases in park quality. And using volunteers has its own issues – staff are needed to supervise and guide volunteers and councils such as Camden said that while better-off areas could provide volunteers with the skills and confidence to “step up to the plate”, more deprived areas could lose out or be in competition for scarce resources.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that funding parks can be our number one priority. Yet there is a real economic case to be made as several councils have demonstrated.

The committee also suggests involving local communities more and looking at different solutions like parks trusts, formal partnerships with friends groups, asset transfers or long leases to social enterprises or charities, and partnership with other organisations.

We need to think therefore more strategically. But above all we need to value and celebrate our green spaces and public parks – not just as assets on a balance sheet but as places for the imagination and of creativity.

Charlotte Park

In Charlotte Park
The wooden benches
At the playground
Transformed magically
Into pirate ships
Sailing about the Spanish Main
Horses galloping
Across the Arizona desert
Police cruisers
Relentlessly pursuing evil robbers

We soldiered around them
Throwing persimmon grenades
And wielding stick bayonets
We won gold medals
In Olympic hurdling
Clearing those benches
Stood high upon them
To slay dragons
Explored the deepest reaches
Of outer space
And spent countless lifetimes
Defying certain death
Without ever once
Leaving the safest bosom
Of our neighborhood

Thomas Horton
(Charlotte Park is a public park in Nashville, Tennessee)