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The new struggle for parks

Mark Walton

The recent Future of Public Parks conference brought together academics, practitioners and policy makers to discuss current research and innovation on how we value and manage our urban parks – but the political dimension of parks and free to access public space was never far from the surface.

What is the the role and value of public parks in the twenty-first century?

This might seem like a redundant question. The health, social and environmental benefits of parks have long been well evidenced, and new tools are emerging all the time to help to account for them.

But in a time of continuing swingeing cuts to local authority budgets, the value of parks and who should care for them remains a topic of debate. The report from the recent Communities and Local Government Select Committee Inquiry described the future of parks as ‘on a knife edge’, and public concerns about the fate of free to access public green space are growing, as the threats to our public parks become clearer.

In July Leeds University brought together a brilliant collection of researchers, policy-makers and practitioners in order to explore the both the value and the future of urban public parks.

The morning session focussed on academic research into parks and open spaces.

In a strong echo of the debate about climate change, there was a general weariness about the idea that we need more evidence of the value of parks in order to convince policymakers of their importance. Instead there was a call for researchers to stress where there is consensus on the evidence that exists, rather than focus on minor differences which could then be exploited to excuse political inaction and ongoing cuts.

There were also wide ranging debates about power and exclusion, the positive potential and dangers of commercialisation, and a recognition of parks as democratic places, and as some of our last remaining common spaces.

It was refreshing to take this wider view of the role of parks at a time when the focus is so often on the day to day issues of cuts, service redesign, and new business models.

The afternoon moved from the academic to the practical, with a focus on emerging innovation. This ranged from Newcastle City Council who are exploring of the potential for establishing a city wide parks trust, to the ‘civic entrepreneurialism’ of Leeds Council who have increased income from their existing commercial assets and visitor attractions by taking a more entrepreneurial approach, whilst retaining public ownership and management.

The event also provided an opportunity to share Shared Assets’ work across a range of new approaches, including our work to develop a model for a Parks Improvement District for London Borough of Camden as part of the Rethinking Parks programme. Amongst all the talk of innovation though it was also an opportunity to give a shout out to the ‘maintainers’. Much of what is currently being touted as innovation, such as changes to planting regimes or increasing income from assets, is not actually all that novel. Many hardworking parks managers have been working diligently for years to maintain these important spaces in changing times, and we can learn much from that experience.

 

The history of parks cannot be separated from the struggle for freedom and social justice in urban areas. - Ken Worpole

It’s a difficult time for parks departments, but potentially an exciting one for parks, as we grapple with the role they should play in 21st century society. There is a great deal of innovation, as well as hard graft and hard won expertise, being applied to the problem of how we fund and maintain our public spaces.

Whether we pay for them using general taxation and see their provision as a public duty, or develop new ways of accounting for the value they provide, there are some values of public parks that must not be lost. Time and again discussion at this conference came back to issues of the rights of citizens to good quality, free to access, public space, and the issues of power, money, exclusion and democracy, that lie at the heart of every debate about its provision. Freedom, self determination, and the sense of being unfettered from the constraints and commercialisation of other urban spaces, are just some of the values of parks can’t be measured and monetised.

Parks have been recognised and fought for as a social necessity, not just a public good, since the beginnings of urbanisation. As Ken Worpole stated in his closing remarks, “the history of parks cannot be separated from the struggle for freedom and social justice in urban areas”. On the evidence of this conference that struggle seems to be entering a new phase.

Slides of the conference are available here.

Shared Assets and Peter Neal are holding two training sessions in London in September as part of our Parks Academy initiative. “Thinking about new models for parks” will be held on 12th September and “Implementing New Models for Parks” on 19th September. Find out more and book your places here.

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