Author, Parks Historian, Public Speaker

The Abuse of Parks is the Abuse of Society

I have sat for long enough and read the reports, seen the pictures, headlines, tweets, Facebook updates and had conversations with my own team and colleagues. I have spoken at length with colleagues across the country who are managing parks in Manchester, Nottingham, Rugby, Salford, Merseyside, Bournemouth, Newcastle, in fact UK wide. Litter, mountains of the stuff, tonnes of it being dropped and dumped in our parks and green spaces. In Rugby's parks, there are 10 tonnes of extra litter being removed from their parks per day. Similar in Salford's Parks where tonnes of rubbish have almost double compared to last year. We see reports of people 'shitting' in McDonald's Burger boxes and leaving then in parks and on beaches for council staff to remove. Thousand's of gas canisters of Nitrous Oxide appearing in parks and left and these are not even illegal. Reports that the Met Police can no longer control our streets, let alone parks. So is this a symptom just of coming out of lockdown? Is it a change in societal behaviour? Is it partly a result of austerity? few police officers and parks staff? Or that pubs and clubs, bars, cinemas are all still closed? What makes a human being think it is acceptable to take a dump in a McDonald's throwaway big mac box and leave it for some poor soul to remove? Matthew Wright on TV called them 'pigs' and was condemned by many for saying such a thing. But pigs would not even behave like this. They are worse than pigs. It is feral behaviour with no limits. These people do not care. We have seen ugly scenes on our streets as part of Black Lives Matters protests, rioting, vandalism, spitting at police officers. Parks staff have been spat at and abused. 

I took a call from a Guardian reporter today who was doing a feature on litter in parks and wanted my views as Chair of the Parks Management Forum. Chaos, its chaos out there, and parks teams are struggling to cope with it after years of austerity and parks maintenance budgets stripped to the bone. Many proffer solutions: better signage, CCTV, Fixed Penalty Notices, Council's need to do a better job (Please really???), the police need to take action, more bins. So why are we experiencing such behaviour and what is the answer? We live in a society that is now largely divisive, confrontational, with leaders that have spouted bile and hatred, from Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump, stirring up society, pulling communities apart. If we don't respect our leaders, then we become dysfunctional, out of control, without any boundaries as to what is acceptable. Bad behaviour breeds bad behaviour. And behaviour has been shocking, at times disgusting. Society is protected by our public services and public services have been stripped bare. Local Authorities, already struggling now have to cope with the aftermath of Covid-19. We rely on our public services for our basic needs - healthcare, safety, protection, wellbeing, cleanliness, housing, social care to providing recreational facilities that support all these. Yet these have been decimated so when we start to lose control, the spiral of decline increases. So the answers?

  • We need to focus on communities, and communities need a robust public sector to support and engage with them. Public services are the fabric of our society;
  • We need strong leadership at all levels - in our communities, in our Town Halls, in our Government, in our schools and colleges and examples of strong leadership must be at the highest level - New Zealand  anyone? Jacinda is an inspiration. 
  • We need to set examples, and we need to make sure there is a deterrent for such behaviour, stiff fines for littering, and I mean stiff, and we need law enforcement that can deliver such deterrents. 
  • We need to focus on the things that matter, our health, our wellbeing, our communities and start relying on people power rather than accepting the bad behaviour of others as acceptable because it isn't. This has to come from Government. 
  • We need to fix society and it has to come from within and we need to do it now. 

This is no easy fix in the current climate, but we can certainly start with strong leadership and setting better examples for all. 


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 


Mixing it up a bit.....!

Posted on July 4, 2019 at 4:50 PM

So after a long day today, I have escaped to my 'cave', put on Fleetwood Mac Rumours and logged on and decided to do a blog. As I write I am not sure what will evolve but lets see where this takes me. 

It has been a busy few days and I am feeling well travelled especially with lectures which are becoming more geographically dispersed. From the Surrey Hill and Cranleigh Arts Society, to Hestercombe Gardens Trust in Somerset, to Helmsley in North Yorkshire to Chelmsford in Essex - the common denominator is my passion for parks and the heritage within them. What I love about the lecturing and the sharing of the passion, is the people I meet and the places I visit. The Surrey Hills are simply beautiful and 2 lectures to the Arts Society in Cranleigh, I was in a venue that Van Morrison and Eric Clapton have performed in! Both lectures were incredibly well received and what I especially love is the spontaneity that is generated  - who would have thought a talk on parks would have included the Bay City Rollers, the Bristol Stool Chart and Brentford Nylons. Well it did in Cranleigh. Mixing it up a bit. Variety. Spontaneity. The same happened in Helmsley too although the talk was on the Royal Parks but we mixed it up a bit. It was also incredible to have my folks there who met a chap who knew them from over 20 years ago on a visit to the Falkland Islands. 

The visit to Hestercombe was stunning and again it was made by those you meet. Philip White MBE rediscovered Hestercombe, a Lutyens / Jekyll Garden and has spent decades restoring it and turning it into an incredible visitor attraction. The gardens are stunning but whilst I enjoyed the visit to the gardens, spending quality time with Philip is what really made it. Passion. Enthusiasm. A love for what you do. Courage and tenacity. 

In Chelmsford, I was judging the heritage of three parks for the council there on behalf of Green Flag. All three were excellent parks and again I met some great individuals doing valuable work. Their landscape architect / officer left a mark in particular, her enthusiasm and love for what she does shining through. 

So where am I going with this? I suppose the best way to put it is that a friend and colleague said to me a while ago I need to be seen to be mixing it up more  - she said I was an activist and that I need to keep at this. I was also called a radiator and that radiators were thin on the ground and to keep away from those that drain. The reason I lecture and do my talks, the reason I write, the reason I want to see a Parks Institute established, the reason I write blogs and the reason I go so much about the value of parks, open spaces, the heritage within is that i believe in it, and i get cross when I see things that are just not right. We have to make a difference and my way of making a difference is to continue to mix it up - keep up the lectures, be an activist, a radiator and to listen to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours more often. 

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