Parks are a fascinating reflection of the society we live in, and their changing fortunes reflect our changing priorities. They really are used, and appreciated, by all. Everyone loves a good park, from Tory grandees to community activists; from toddlers chasing squirrels to old ladies smelling roses. Everyone's personal history includes a story about a park. It's the place where people first met their husband or wife, or had their first kiss, or smoked their first fag. It's where you fell into a pond, or out of a tree, or got into a fight, or learned to ride your bike.
Quality of life Research commissioned by Cabe Space from Mori told us that 91% of the population believe that good parks and public spaces improve people's quality of life. This government - always well attuned to opinion polls - recognised the public support for parks some time ago and, for the last four years, has had a policy of encouraging local authorities to prioritise them, and has funded Cabe Space to help make this happen.
This, along with the money that the lottery has awarded to park restoration projects, and work by a wide range of organisations, is now starting to turn around the appalling decline in our parks that took place from the 1970s until the end of the century. Parks really are moving up the political agenda: during the recent Love Parks week, organised by the parks charity GreenSpace, each of the three main political parties publicly committed themselves to supporting them. And yet, as I travelled around the country visiting parks and meeting the people who work in them and for them, the things I saw and the stories I heard rarely reflected this public support.
In many local authorities, the parks department is so far down the pecking order - usually lumped in with leisure services, or street cleaning and environment - that its budget is an easy target to raid because there's no one very senior to defend it. Year-on-year budget cuts remain the norm in too many places. And people who work in parks departments remain hugely undervalued, their role often assumed to be little more than grass cutting and litter picking, rather than providing a much-valued service to the community, managing huge areas of our most historic urban landscapes, and making a large contribution to environmental priorities, such as urban drainage and biodiversity.
When you ask kids (and adults) what they want in a good park, they invariably say that they want to know that there is someone they can turn to in an emergency - a park keeper, or ranger, or even someone working in the cafe. It's not a lot to ask.
On a sunny day, a popular park could have as many as 10,000 visitors, yet most parks have no permanent staff in them. The budget cuts of the 1980s saw to that.
Cabe Space has been running its Parkforce campaign to raise awareness of the value of having staff in every major park. So far, 122 councils have signed up to it and are working hard to make it happen, despite the difficulty of finding the money to pay for extra staff.
This summer, the campaign is continuing with the launch of an award for the best parkforce in the country, and the best individual member of staff in a park. The prize is a trip to New York to spend time with the rangers in Central Park.
From my visits to parks all over the country, I'm well aware of the huge difference that can be made by a single person dedicated to looking after one park and its community. In Bristol, for instance, Victoria Park now has Felis Jenkins to care for it. Previously, like so many parks, a team of maintenance staff would turn up, spend a short time there, then disappear off to the next park on their rota. "It's clear that having one individual in the park all the time is much better than loads of teams rushing in and out," says Kerry Chester, secretary of the Victoria Park Action Group. "There's someone to get things sorted really quickly."
As the National Audit Office noted in its recent report, Enhancing Urban Green Space, the terrible decline in our parks that took place at the end of the 20th century is being halted. Generally, parks are improving - but they are improving most in our most affluent areas, while poorer areas still tend to have lousy parks.
I saw this first-hand 18 months ago. A class of young schoolchildren in Bedfordshire had written to their MP asking if she could help make their park better. They didn't want much, just the usual things - swings, flowers, a place to have fun. The park in question, the only one in that deprived area, was typical of so many local parks - a windswept, blank patch of grass. It offered nothing to amuse a six-year-old, or, for that matter, a 60-year-old. The good parks, I was told, were on the better-off side of town. Policy-makers are currently considering how control over local services such as parks can be devolved right down to community level. In other words, if the council is neglecting your park, why don't you and your neighbours take it upon yourselves? While this might make sleepy councils realise what actually matters to people - and parks matter far more than some councils realise - there is surely a real risk of increasing the problem of more affluent areas, with better-skilled community groups, improving their parks at the expense of more deprived places.
Gaining effective political support for parks at a local level is more than just a trivial issue about access to leisure facilities - it's a matter of environmental justice. There is increasing evidence of the links between people's mental and physical health and the quality of the environment in which they live. Even a gentle stroll around a park can measurably reduce stress levels. And if we are serious about reducing childhood obesity, then we need to provide kids with attractive places to play, near where they live.
Many parks departments are bringing in money from a very wide range of sources, spending considerable amounts of their time fundraising. Given the huge popular support for parks, and the environmental, community and health benefits that they bring, surely there is a strong case for simply investing more public money in them? At the moment, however, the complex rules of local government finance prevent the introduction here of some of the more innovative approaches to parks funding that are effective abroad. Despite this, an increasing number of councils have a renewed focus on parks.
Working in partnership with others - such as community groups, the local primary care trust and local businesses - they are transforming their parks services, becoming more innovative, community focused, and efficient. I've seen plenty of councils where this is happening, and many where it isn't. The places that have got it right all have a few things in common. There's a councillor who's passionate about parks, supporting a parks team that is skilled and entrepreneurial. And there's an understanding that providing good parks is not about how often the grass is cut, or meeting numerical targets. It's about improving the health, wellbeing and quality of life of everyone who lives in that neighbourhood.
Posted on 22nd August 2006
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