Paul Rabbitts MLA FRSA
Author, Parks Historian, Public Speaker
Why Parks Matter...
In 2016, I published ‘Great British Parks: A Celebration’ which very much started out as a straightforward celebration of Great British Parks which was followed in 2017 by ‘Parkitecture – Buildings and Monuments of Public Parks’. Both books recognised the value of one of our finest institutions – the public park. I have worked in parks for over 30 years, managing, developing, improving and restoring them. They are my passion. With the current pandemic affecting us globally, there has been an incredible resurgence in the value of public parks, with politicians spouting walks in your local park, fresh air as being good for us, provided we socially distance ourselves (naturally) and the nation has embraced them once again. Government has ordered councils to keep parks open, allowing opportunities for exercise, and the value they are to our health and well-being. Wellness is now oft quoted. Walks in my local park here in Leighton Buzzard have seen more people out walking, running, playing frisbee, children on bikes, and this is despite the play area being closed and the gyms out of action. So are we valuing parks once again? We need to look back at history first as to when we acquired these wonderful public utilities, open to all, yet over the decades have been much maligned, neglected, abused, restored and then once again neglected. We need to break the boom, bust, boom, bust cycle and once and for all, value our parks and green spaces like never before. And it is never so relevant than this week – World Parks Week.
Parks were born out of the need to improve the quality of people’s lives as the Industrial Revolution took its hold. 100 years later, this was sadly abandoned as we embraced ‘the cost of providing’ rather than the ‘benefits (note the plural) of providing’, only to rediscover this by the end of the twentieth century. Thanks to successive studies and reports, surveys, analysis, continued lobbying, many parks have been rescued from virtual obscurity, primarily funded by the National Lottery, including the wonderful Avenham & Miller parks in Preston; Birkenhead Park on the Wirrall; Victoria Park, London; Heaton Park, Manchester; Leazes Park, Newcastle; Abbey Park, Leicester and many many more. The figure from the National Lottery Heritage Fund now exceeds £1 billion allocated to rescuing our most important public parks. The irony is perhaps wrapped up in history itself – history tells us that parks are good for us. So is this lottery funded parks renaissance really over? In 2014, the Heritage Lottery Fund published a report on the condition of parks in the UK called ‘State of UK Public Parks - Research Report to the Heritage Lottery Fund June 2014’ and was followed up by a similar report in 2016. The picture was bleak and none more so apparent with the fate of many parks, being sold off, developed, features being closed such as in Ryelands Park in Lancaster, with the ultimate destruction of its iconic bandstand in June 2017.
Way back in in 2006 CABE Space highlighted the challenge was to ensure the ‘long-term sustainability of these improvements in the conditions of urban green spaces across the country. In many cases, this required the identification of alternative sources of revenue and capital funding’. Yet funding for public parks and urban green spaces was significantly reduced between 1979 and 2000, losing an estimated £1.3 billion in total. A timely report published in January 2013 by the International Federation of Parks and Recreation Administration (Ifpra) concluded that there is evidence for a range of benefits of urban parks and that there is sound scientific evidence that parks contribute to human and social wellbeing (wellness?). Specifically, urban planners should focus on high quality parks in such areas, where the case is currently that parks are scarce and poorly maintained. Given the strong evidence for parks as promoting physical activity and reducing obesity (parkruns are surely the best example of this), more thoughts should be given to how parks are planned and established with good opportunities and amenities for exerting varied kinds of physical activity, such as walking and biking (exactly what politicians are telling us to do today but it takes a global pandemic for them to get this!). In 2014, Dr Katy Layton-Jones published her final report for English Heritage on Urban Parks, Designed Landscapes and Open Spaces. It referred to the remission of the period of decline for Britain’s parks as a result of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Urban Parks Programme and its successor the ‘Parks for People’ scheme. But it warns of an uncertain future in terms not only of funding and maintenance, but also of ownership, and in some cases, existence. The economic crisis of 2007 marked a change in mood and expectation among many green space professionals. In the 2010-11 financial year, local authorities were forced to implement significant savings. Local authority budget cuts (average 28 per cent over a three-year period, and in some cases up to 90%), brought an abrupt halt to many ambitions for significant capital investment in public green space across the country. The requirement to demonstrate financial sustainability still places considerable economic pressure on local authorities. It is getting worse. Local authorities no longer have any funding from central government since the withdrawal of the annual Revenue Support Grant. Basically, it’s now up to councils to foot all the bills.
So the future of UK public parks in 2016 was at a crossroads and today, 2020, it now faces an even greater challenge with future austerity and a deep recession looming. ‘The State of UK Public Parks 2014 - Renaissance to risk’ and its follow up in 2016 perhaps gave the clearest picture. They reported that maintenance budgets were being reduced, capital was less available for improvements, park facilities were becoming more expensive to use, management and maintenance skills were being lost, and some parks and green spaces were being sold or transferred to others to maintain. This is despite over 2.6 billion estimated visits made to the UK’s parks each year. Over 70% of park managers have recorded increased visitor numbers to their principal parks between 2013-14. Yet 86% of park managers report cuts to revenue budgets since 2010 and they expect the trend to continue for the next few years and beyond. Just as worrying is that 71% of households with children under 10 years of age are concerned that reductions in council budgets could have a negative impact on the condition of their local park. This is already having an impact with a number of local authorities who have already seen the positive result of ‘one-off’ lottery investments, struggling to sustain the quality of the once restored landscape. The picture becomes even more bleak.
Great Britain has been a nation of park builders since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. J.C. Loudon writing in the Gardener’s Magazine in 1829, campaigned for public parks as ‘Breathing Places’ for towns and cities. 176 years later, The Times (13/11/15) reports that ‘its mad to let Britain’s glorious heritage of urban parks disappear’. Speaking at the Paxton 150 conference in 2015, parks historian David Lambert echoed this. ‘What Paxton and his fellow Victorians thought was bleedin’ obvious – that the health, social and recreational benefits of parks far outweigh the costs of maintaining them. Three words that sum up the absolute value of parks and green spaces – health, social and recreational. The Covid19 pandemic has demonstrated the value of parks to us all. For those of us that have been the guardian of them for decades, we know this, and the great British public know this. Local authorities and the few park managers that remain over the last 20 years have been innovative, creative, dogmatic and pragmatic when it comes to their parks and green spaces. But there is now one lesson that government must recognize – parks matter, no matter what. We know there is a recession coming and times will be hard, but if there is one institution that matters and has positive benefits on everybody, it is the local park. Perhaps now is the time to cease the constant boom bust cycle we have tolerated since the Victorians gave us these social assets. Ruskin has been quoted countless times, but there is no better conclusion in my view that:-
‘The measure of any great civilization is in its cities, and the measure of a city's greatness is to be found in the quality of its public spaces, its parks and squares’. Or perhaps the more recent quote from David Lambert above, that it’s ‘bleedin’ obvious’. “
Paul Rabbitts FRSA FLI
Head of Parks, Heritage & Culture
Watford Borough Council