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Parks under threat

by Alice Wright

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Wildflower beds at St Andrews Park Bristol, .Credit Avon and Somerset Police

They are often described as the “green lungs” of a city – leafy, rejuvenating oases amid the smog and crowds of urban life. But our much-loved parks are “close to crisis point”, according to The Parks Alliance, a body formed last year in response to growing concern about public green spaces.

The Alliance brings together organisations and senior park industry figures to champion our parks and campaign for adequate funding. And their concerns were confirmed by a report released this summer by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

Entitled ‘State of UK Parks 2014’, the report concludes that many face an uncertain future. Most are managed by local authorities, whose budgets are falling as central Government cuts take hold. With funding for parks expected to carry on shrinking, the report warns that parks will “dramatically decline” if action is not taken. Sue Ireland, Director of Open Spaces for City of London Corporation and a member of The Parks Alliance board, agrees.

“It’s a big issue and something that parks have never before faced,” she says. “In the late 70s and early 80s we went through a difficult period where parks were looking very uncared for, but it wasn’t for so long that it wasn’t possible to bring it back.”

With local authorities’ funding coming under “severe pressure” in the next few years, Sue and her peers worry that this time the effects of neglect will be much harder to reverse. “Within five years some authorities won’t have money for parks,” she says.

Parks have been at the heart of city life since the Industrial Revolution. As cities expanded, municipal parks were created to address the environmental and public health issues that came with this rapid urban growth. And the values and principles that inspired them hold true today. Research shows that parks have a positive effect on people’s wellbeing. There is also evidence that well-maintained parks improve social cohesion in their communities. They promote local economic development, because attractive areas draw in investment. And of course they deliver key environmental benefits.

It is estimated that 2.6bn visits are made to UK parks every year and 83 per cent of households with children aged five and under visit their local park at least once a month. Yet despite their special place in our hearts, parks have only recently emerged from a previous period of decline. The Countryside Act of 1968 saw a shift of focus to larger country parks, at the expense of urban spaces. Budget cuts in the 1980s squeezed provision for urban parks even further.

The mid-1990s saw a change in fortune for public parks, with a renewed Government focus and some significant investment – for example, between 1996 and 2006 the Heritage Lottery Fund delivered more than £538m of grant funding to over 220 parks.

But there is real concern that all this good work will unravel as cuts take hold. The HLF report found that 86 per cent of park managers report cuts to revenue budgets since 2010 and they expect this to continue for the next three years. Almost half of local authorities are considering either selling green spaces or handing their management to third parties, and 81 per cent of council parks departments have lost skilled management staff since 2010, with 77 per cent losing front-line staff.

It is this loss of knowledge and experience that Sue Ireland is perhaps most worried about. Without staff to maintain planting and facilities and clear litter, parks gradually fall into a state of disrepair that discourages visitors. And Sue explains that while secure, maintained parks create a positive cycle, those that are poorly maintained quickly go into a downward spiral.

In the face of dwindling council funding, the HFL report predicts that volunteers will play an increasingly central role in trying to save local green spaces from this fate. But while Sue applauds the work of community groups she cautions that few have the in-depth knowledge or experience to manage parks alone.

“You can’t run these things without some experts, and knowledge about how to maintain a cricket pitch, or a football field or so on. Although we will need to make the most effective use of volunteers and encourage their support, that in itself is not the solution.”

The HLF report also warns that volunteer groups need to be trained and motivated by skilled staff in order to thrive. Nevertheless, volunteers around the country have achieved huge success in transforming their green spaces.

In Bristol, the Friends of St Andrews Park was formed after local residents tired of the anti-social behaviour their park attracted. Martin Weitz, publicity spokesman for the group, explains that the park had become neglected and run down, so local people decided to take matters into their own hands.

They formed sub-groups to deal with different areas, such as graffiti, anti-social behaviour, wildlife, and the heritage and appearance of the park. A key aim was to revive local pride in the park. Initiatives included installing noticeboards around the park depicting its history, and commissioning a local artist to paint a mural on the toilet block, discouraging graffiti. Their efforts helped make the park a place that local people could take pleasure in again, and Martin says the neighbourhood seemed to improve as a result.

St Andrews

St Andrews Park Bristol before and after restoration

More recently, the Friends helped devise an imaginative scheme to reduce anti-social behaviour by planting wildflower meadows. Martin explains that on hot summer days rowdy groups would gather in the park, often drinking and playing loud music. A local police officer suggested that planting flower beds to break up the park would prevent large numbers from congregating. The Friends successfully applied for funding from the Police and Crime Commissioner’s Community Action Fund to plant wildflowers, which came into bloom this summer.

“Everyone has said it’s totally changed the atmosphere,” says Martin. “It’s actually working. It’s dispersed the groups and created a tranquil atmosphere. It’s had a dramatic effect.”

Wildflowers in St Andrews Park,

Wildflowers at St Andrews Park: Credit Simon Randolph

In Stockbridge Village, in the Merseyside borough of Knowsley, another community group has worked tirelessly to transform its local green space from a “no go area” into a Green Flag Award-winning site. Philip Hurst, Green Space Development Officer for the local council, explains that Little Wood had become so neglected and overgrown it was attractive only to vandals and criminals.

In 2000 local residents formed The Little Wood of Stockbridge Village Association and set about clearing and reclaiming the site – no easy task as more than 30 burnt out cars had been abandoned there and it had become a fly-tipping site. Once the group had created a place that was usable and attractive, the public immediately adopted it as a “positive green space”.

little Wood before

Little Wood before restoration

“It transformed how the site was being used. The anti-social behaviour declined and it really brought the woodland into the community,” says Philip.

He adds that the partnership between the council and the volunteers has been key to Little Wood’s success. Much of the funding that the community group was able to access, from sources such as the Big Lottery Fund, was not available to the council. And the involvement of local people was crucial in creating a space that met the community’s needs. In turn, the council had the resources and expertise to help manage the site’s transformation.

Little wood after

Little Wood opening after restoration

Groups like these can play a pivotal role in the health of their local park, but they cannot succeed single-handedly. The Heritage Lottery Fund report, backed by The Parks Alliance calls for urgent action from a range of sectors, from Government and local authorities to businesses and academic institutions. It makes clear that renewed commitment and fresh approaches are needed to ensure that parks continue to provide nourishing breathing spaces for the communities they serve.

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