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Parks and Green Spaces -Paradise Lost or Merely Invisible?

It should be well-known within the green spaces sector that the word paradise, meaning a place of peace, health, prosperity and harmony, is derived from the old Persian, pairi-daêza, for a park or garden. Clearly, the link between good quality green spac

Yves St Laurent's Majorelle Gardens, Marrakesh

es and human well-being has long been long recognised. The need for thriving communities to have access to attractive open spaces which provide rich experiences seems completely self-evident, in the same way they need good schools, roads, or hospitals.

It is not easy to understand, therefore, why public parks and green spaces are so ‘invisible’ and low down the political priority order for funding and investment. They are rarely, if ever, mentioned in election manifestos, and many council parks departments are now incorporated (and often lost) in ‘neighbourhood’ or ‘cleaner and greener’ services, along with waste management, highways and street cleaning.

The result is that they are now so low-profile and invisible that they have become an easy target for the intended draconian austerity cuts over the next few years. The estimates of future cuts to local council funding make grim reading, with only 42% of intended austerity cuts having already taken place.

Parks and green spaces are not a statutory service and have very little protection, so are likely to get a disproportionate share of the cut-backs with many parks budgets predicted to be further cut by up to 60% over the course of this parliament.

Housing estate greenspace in the austerity era

Green spaces on a housing estate's in the austerity era

In my previous articles I explained how, only fifteen years ago, a House of Commons Select Committee inquiry heard and accepted the overwhelming evidence for the importance of properly-funded parks and green spaces, and a national body for the sector. Despite this recognition, and the accumulation of further supporting evidence since, it seems as though the case needs to be argued all over again. A ‘golden decade’ for the parks sector ended in remorseless cut-backs and the elimination of CABESpace and Greenspace.

I also pointed out that local councils and other public landowner’s have one mainl statutory duties, a duty of care to keep visitors safe. Often, on that basis, deteriorating park features are demolished and decommissioned for ‘health and safety’ reasons. Many pavilions, shelters, bandstands, glasshouses, paddling pools, fountains, pets corners, aviaries and other features have long since disappeared from all but the most high-ranking parks.

There is now no longer a national organisation to champion parks and open spaces apart from The Parks Alliance, an emerging voluntary collective voice of interested individuals and organisations, which is lobbying at a political level.

In my first article I asked, who cares? Public services have to be reduced and it could be argued that there are more important issues than parks and open spaces. So why should we be concerned, and what makes green infrastructure so important to our lives?

The benefits of parks and open spaces

The list of benefits is extensive and far-reaching, and I have catalogued some of these briefly these below. Each deserves its own full narrative, but I have taken just one example, health and well-being, to illustrate in a little depth their huge importance for our quality of life.

The list includes, in no particular order:-

  • Improving the liveability of an area; making it more attractive and desirable to live in; giving area character and ‘a sense of place’, boosting tourism; attracting inward investment, visual and physical amenity for local people and visitors

  • Increasing neighbouring property value and saleability

  • Contributing hugely to sustainable urban drainage by absorbing rain and preventing run-off; alleviating flooding via storm water and rainwater control and management

  • Ameliorating the urban ‘heat island’ effect; absorbing particulate pollution; short- to medium-term carbon sequestration

  • Stimulating community cohesion; venues for community events and meeting other people; adult personal development opportunities through volunteering; job creation on successful sites

  • Providing space for people to unwind, have fun, sunbathe, play music, practice skills, walk dogs, picnics etc.

  • Providing areas for quiet contemplation, reading, appreciation of nature and spiritual refreshment

  • Money-saving especially for financially disadvantaged people via use of a free or low-cost local facilities and services; equality and democracy in facilities that are available to all; sites for low-cost active travel and exercise

  • Educational resource and venue for all ages; sites for school outings, nature visits; contributing to children’s development via opportunities to explore, imagine and take risks

  • Food production- allotments, ‘Incredible Edible’, community orchards/farms all contribute to healthy lifestyles; it’s estimated that 10% of the world’s food is grown on allotments and smallholdings

  • Provision of a rich mosaic of habitats for specific types of wildlife/biodiversity; trees, woodland and hedgerows; parks, open spaces and gardens are the UK’s largest ‘nature reserve’

  • Cultural/heritage; historic landscape features, heritage items such as sculpture, statues, ornaments, buildings, horticultural features; events, festivals, opera/theatre in the park, carnivals, fun days, circuses and fairs, bonfires and fireworks, Christmas carols etc. -all bring the park and neighbourhood to life

  • Sport and exercise- 80% of sport is still played on local authority land; improved physical health and well-being from exercise

  • Play- formal playgrounds give opportunity for physical challenges, whilst informal play areas develop social and language skills and imagination

  • Health Value- see below

The role of parks and green spaces in health and well-being

In the 1990’s Dr William Bird, a family GP from Berkshire started the health walk and Green Gym movement following concerns about some of his patients finding it difficult to get motivated to exercise. He was so convinced of the efficacy of walking and taking exercise in green spaces, as separate from the gym, that he collated together all available research to support his belief that spending time and walking in green space is good for your health.

In 2007 he published a synopsis of his findings in his book, Natural Thinking and the conclusions showed clearly that there was convincing evidence of the beneficial impact of just being in green space on both physical and mental health. In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for his work.

Just being in green space is good for you, any exercise is a bonus!

The evidence showed that merely being in good quality green space for fifteen minutes resulted in lowered blood pressure, reduced blood toxin levels, reduced stress, improved cognitive performance and enhanced memory retention; any exercise taken was a bonus.

Hospital patients overlooking green spaces and gardens recover quicker have less complications and require less pain relief than those overlooking buildings or car parks.

The exact mechanism for this effect is not known but the research identified three main theories, none of which exclude the others, to explain how these underpinning health benefits work.

The Biophilia Hypothesis, proposed by the eminent biologist, Edward O. Wilson (who coined the term ‘biodiversity’) suggests that humans are genetically ‘hard-wired’ to be more contented and function better in natural environments, both physiologically, emotionally and cognitively. He explains this is due to humankind evolving over hundreds of thousands of years, living with, depending on, and eventually manipulating nature.

Attention Restoration Theory proposes that compared with ‘hard’ indoor or urban environments, natural environments are more effective in allowing our brains to recharge and recover what is termed ‘direct attention’ or concentrated focus on a particular task, such as writing reports, developing spreadsheets, accounts, driving, studying etc.. These activities can be hard work, are important but often uninteresting, and can soon tire the brain leading to negative symptoms such as displacement activity, distraction, irritability, anxiety and emotional reactivity. Being present in good quality green space helps our brains recover from fatigue, and this effect is currently recognised in many school’s activity plans

Being present in good quality green space helps our brains recover from fatigue,

The third theory is the Psychological Stress Recovery Theory regarding the clear evidence for reduced blood pressure, pulse rate, blood stress-toxin levels, muscle tension and anxiety in people and patients within fifteen minutes of being present in green space. This effect even worked, to a lesser extent, when they were shown pictures or videos of landscapes. Interestingly, the most effective pictures at producing this effect showed undulating grassland, dotted with trees, a body of water, and evidence of human habitation, such as paths or a mid-distant dwelling. Like the Biophilia explanation, this effect was thought to be the result of deep-seated genetic hard-wiring.

The implications for health services, schools, universities, mental health carers, etc. of the phenomenon of improved physical health, mental wellbeing and happiness, through connection with nature, is only just beginning to register. The impact of this knowledge on education service and child physical and cognitive development, on tackling the obesity and diabetes crisis, and on the caring professions should be profound.

Every year, more research exposes the amazing healing and health-giving properties of green spaces yet, somehow, every year parks and green spaces become more invisible

What is the future for Public Parks and Green Spaces?

The role that parks and green spaces play in our individual lives, and in society, have changed significantly since the park movement emerged in the Victorian era. Changes in lifestyles and the challenges of the austerity era have left parks with an uncertain role in the 21st Century and defining their future purpose and maintenance level is now essential to prevent repeating the decline seen in the 1970s and 80s.

In November 2013, NESTA, the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts, a public body designed to promote creativity, talent and innovation, provided almost £1 million to fund research into new business models and funding streams for parks and open spaces.

NESTA recognised the uncertain future for parks and open spaces and the impending austerity measures and recognised the need for new approaches and models for the development, management and maintenance of public green spaces.

In their report Rethinking Parks: New business models for parks they cited examples of successful parks business models in the UK and internationally, involving community, social and private enterprises. They sought out local authorities and organisations to propose innovative approaches to park management and maintenance, new organisational structures, more diverse funding sources, and identifying new uses for parks.

Eleven projects were chosen, including using crowdsourcing, exploring endowment funding as used by the National Trust, Land Trust etc., business and property levies, pop-up businesses, preventative health-funding, asset transfer to communities, use of volunteers, grassland management regimes, subscriptions and corporate donations. The progress to date of these projects will soon be made available, and I am sure there will be many lessons learned, mostly positive, I hope.

Grass tennis courts closed as part of parks budget savings package

There are estimated to be over 27,000 parks and recreational open spaces in the UK, of which more than 2,500 are parks of historic interest.

There seems to be an appealing, but almost certainly mistaken, notion that these parks and green spaces are dormant cash cows which local authorities have failed to exploit, and that public subsidy should not be required if they were managed properly. I am not convinced that this has any basis in reality. No doubt there are potential funding streams and new business/operational models which could help, but essentially all but the most high profile parks and green spaces will require public funding for the foreseeable future, even for minimal maintenance. Private sector models for managing green spaces, such as the outstanding Trentham Gardens in Staffordshire are hardly likely to get past local planning committees.

Trentham Gardens, a lesson in maximising commercial opportunity whilst providing a great garden experience

Another great hope which seems naïve, over-optimistic and even absurd, is that there is a huge appetite for local communities, sports clubs or ‘Friends Groups’ to take over the management and maintenance of their local green space. These groups do an amazing job bringing parks to life, improving facilities etc. but do they want to do more? Volunteer and help out, yes; run a sports facility such as a bowling club, yes; but to take on the legal, health and safety, financial commitments and day-to-day running of an average local green space is not likely, I would suggest, to attract too many takers.

Hopes for the future

Fortunately all is not doom and gloom out there. A quick look at the current parks sector immediately uncovers some thought-provoking innovation and creative projects, and some remarkable ways of surviving and thriving in frugal times.

One striking example is the emergence of the community interest company, mutual and not-for-profit enterprises, which, whilst prevalent in other sectors such as the health, leisure and social care has few exemplars in the parks sector. They have been demonstrated to be innovative, profitable and more resilient to changes in the economic climate

For example, Ubico Ltd., is a local authority-owned company, operating as a not-for-profit enterprise specialising in environmental services to the public sector, including parks maintenance and management. The founder shareholders of the company are Cheltenham Borough Council and Cotswold District Council, but the company has been formed in such a way as to allow other public sector organisations to become shareholders and receive services.

Such companies have been shown to be flexible and long-lasting, achieving savings of between 5-10%. They have the ability to trade and increase income whilst retaining and increasing the added value of community engagement including volunteers. Profits are re-invested into the local community

Other beacons of hope shining through the gloom include-

  • The emergence of carefully planned mowing regimes, wildflower and contemporary urban planting substantially reducing maintenance costs whilst improving biodiversity. Cutting grass is the largest green space maintenance cost, so savings could be substantial, but the success of this depends on changing public perception of green space ‘tidiness’

  • The emergence of more highly-developed outcome/output-based maintenance specifications and partnership contracts. The development of private contractors as partners in integrated approaches to problem-solving and innovation in difficult times is heartening

  • New funding streams such as Community Infrastructure Levy, Endowment funds from developers, corporate giving, crowdsourcing, Carrier Bag Levy receipts etc.

  • The Policy Exchange proposed Parks Improvement Districts and Green Prescribing

  • The emergence of Biophilic Cities, the Blue Green Cities/Blue Green Dream agenda

  • The emergence and development of the Parks Alliance –get ready to join!

  • The potential for ‘Super Parks Services’ where neighbouring local authorities and/or public landholders form a ‘super-client’ to reduce costs

The next decade could see a huge paradigm shift in the management of local parks and open spaces, innovative strategies and models need to emerge. We will wait to see if the momentum of forces to improve dominates the inertia which is making them invisible –will they be paradises lost or regained?

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Yoyogi Park Tokyo, a park alive with people and activity


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