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Parks of the future and how will we get there.

Julian Thompson

Parks? What are they good for and how do we know? What will our parks look and feel like as we move through the 21st century?

Our parks have a rich history and are an essential part of our quality of life.  Open spaces in towns and cities are as old as cities themselves.

Ebenezer Howard’s town planning ideas at the start of the 20th century, exemplified by the Garden City Movement set out to create attractive towns through well designed open space. We must consider the question of how we conceive of, and provide, the open spaces we want to have for our children and their children to enjoy.

Parks in the 21st century aren’t that different – we still want to be close to nature and breath fresh air, have space to stretch, run and socialise away from buildings and enclosed spaces. To see the sky above and grass beneath our feet.

Everybody, wherever we live, should have access to a quality green space; parks contribute to the sustainability of our towns and cities.

This is something I viscerally feel to be true, but how do I know? As I look around me at the parks in Newcastle, run and walk on a winter’s day, or play frisbee with friends in the summer, I wonder what I’d do, if I didn’t have this green space on my doorstep. After all, I’m a country boy living in the city…

The technology we have at our disposal to imagine & conceive our parks, plan their use and manage them is a new frontier. One that can deliver significant benefits.

Plan: access to information on planning through open data and the democratisation of mapping information (as announced in the budget, with the release of Ordnance Survey’s master maps) is leading to a transformation of how we visualise our environment online. OS’s Green Spaces, helps us get outside and explore, while Shared Assets’ application Land Explorer will capitalise further on this data. Crowd sourced information from communities and recent releases of open from local authorities will help us find, access and manage land. This can help visualise data previously unseen, help build financial support or evidence base and engage a broader population of park visitors.

Consult: soliciting community views are already underway using websites, twitter and social media. Digital Civics in Newcastle ran a digital campaign along with face to face workshops to discuss and discover how the community used its parks. Companies like Place Changers offer easy ways to carry out public consultations and engagement online. With a trend for gamification both on and offline, this will shape what we want to see, while making the process fun for all. With a plethora of data now becoming available we can plan and shape our parks to meet requirements, as never before.

Share: information like business planning, revenue and reporting – management information can be seen in real time. Increasing visibility and transparency of information lets us see where the money’s coming from (and where it’s going).

Communicate: reporting what is (or isn’t) working, vandalism or antisocial behaviour is becoming easier. With initiatives like Fix My Street, from MySociety gaining traction, we’ll see similar for parks.

With the taking and sharing of pictures (both good and bad), allowing us to see others’ experience, it will help fix problems more quickly and inspire to action – get out and share. Feedback & communications with twitter and social media are quicker than ever.

Campaign: we can engage and campaign more easily, with survey tools, petitions, email marketing and social media at our fingertips we can reach out to our communities and democratise access to information and solicit a broad spectrum of participation.

Imagine: VR and AR will help you imagine and see what new developments in a recreational space might look or feel like. AR will also be a fundamental part of gamification and can help make visits more informative (apps that show types of plants or provide games to get kids outside….), these can include images of national parks, so you can also view in 3D to inspire and then plan your adventure and share with friends…

Demonstrate: public value and wellbeing; the intangibles of quality of life that simply aren’t measured in a budget or by GDP. How much is a game of Frisbee with your friends, in the warm glow of the sun, worth? How does it improve health and productivity? How much is our health worth?

Welling being devices and apps like fit bit can track and feedback valuable information to quantify this question. Recently published evidence shows the mental health benefits of going for a walk can last for 7 hours, new apps like UrbanMind measure your experiences by collecting real-time data and help us understand how our environment affects our mental wellbeing.

Measure & Track: advances in technology can help to provide an evidence base. Knowing it’s there, when the busy (and quiet) times are and how the park is used. Biodiversity can be measured, planting bee & insect friendly plants (how & where?) can be shown on interactive maps.

GPS tracking allows us to see crowd source data on how and when parks are used; combine this with the power of apps that garner user engagement and we have powerful tools to get data.

Drones can tell us more about our environment and show previously unseen perspectives. We can see in real time through online booking what facilities are in use, or available and access easily using RFID (cards or keyrings) – available to “friends of the park”.

Socialise: planning events has never been easier. We can schedule, meet, create tickets and events and have social meet ups (like popular runs or picnics).

Volunteer: we can create schemes, schedules, requests, people management, forums, peer networking while campaigning can be managed online to get us active and participating to create the spaces we want.

Learn: advances in Artificial Intelligence and machine learning, will help make sense of all this data from planning and engagement to use and assist planning for our wellbeing – what’s working, what’s popular, what we need more of.

In the age of digital communication and participation, I expect to be asked what facilities I’d like in my parks, be able to see and visualise current and future plans; have fun playing games to engage with the process. Be provided with information on what plants and wildlife are there, schedule time with friends or volunteer. Be a part of the process with feedback and see how my activity benefits myself and others, share pictures, stories, maps, routes. Plan and visit events: picnics, Frisbee, running, relaxing (reading or just sitting). Improve my wellbeing, demonstrate the non-monetary value & feel better by being outside. Planning trips online, using mobile applications to guide park visits, sharing park experiences via social media will become the norm. You can be a citizen planner: a “Prosumer” – both a producer and consumer (a term coined in the book Wikinomics, about openness, peering, sharing, and acting).  In this case, creating and using the parks and green spaces you want now and in the future.

So, remember to #LoveParks

But even considering all this technology and while sat at my computer, writing this blog and looking out of my window, at Exhibition Park, I feel drawn to go outside and stretch my legs (it’s snowing!)…

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