As local authorities face further budget cuts our Director, Mark Walton, says there’s no ‘silver bullet’ for the future funding and management of our parks and public open spaces, but recent programmes like ‘Rethinking Parks’ are providing new tools and approaches that will help us create new models of management for the 21st century.

The past 18 months or so has seen a flurry of activity in the development and testing of potential new models for the management of parks and open spaces. Perhaps the highest profile of these has been Rethinking Parks, a joint Heritage Lottery Fund, Big Lottery and Nesta programme which supported 11 projects to test new ideas for public parks over 18 months during 2014-15.

Nesta recently published a series of case studies and reports setting out the key findings from the projects. Publications include the ‘Learning To Rethink Parks’ report that captures the learning and insights from the programme, and ‘Rethinking Parks Highlights’, a shorter summary document. For those who want to learn more about the individual projects there also a series of more detailed case studies including this one for the Bloomsbury Squared project. Shared Assets worked on Bloomsbury Squared with London Borough of Camden to explore the potential, and develop a business model, for a new Business Improvement District with a specific focus on the improvement of Bloomsbury’s historic squares and gardens.

Shared Assets is also involved in two other programmes that include significant parks and green space projects. Delivering Differently, funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and the Cabinet Office, is focused on improving public service delivery by new using new models such as mutuals and social enterprises. The Community Ownership and Management of Assets (COMA) programme (also funded by DCLG) is focused on multiple and complex asset transfers.

The singular focus of Rethinking Parks, and the inclusion of significant parks and green space projects in COMA and Delivering Differently, has generated some fantastic learning that will be of value to communities, local authorities, and their partners in developing new models for the future of our parks and green spaces. However many of the projects that are being supported by these programmes have tended to focus on one or two sites, or on single specific approaches to income generation. Few are looking at a larger scale, applying a range of different activities and income generation strands in a connected way to create completely new models and deliver change at scale. Fewer still are really rethinking parks or green spaces for the 21st century so that they deliver new social, economic or environmental benefits. Instead many seem to be simply looking for new income to prop up management approaches that haven’t changed much since Victorian times.

Projects like ‘Rethinking Parks’ provide new tools and approaches that help us create new models of management for the 21st century.

Some of the Rethinking Parks projects, such as Bloomsbury Squared and Sheffield’s Endowing Parks, did start to look at area-wide approaches and entirely new governance and management models. Endowing Parks is a partnership between Sheffield City Council and the National Trust exploring the potential for a city-wide parks trust and endowment fund. Shared Assets has been involved in supporting the team there to think through the implications for governance of any new trust.

Burnley Borough Council’s ‘Go To The Park’ project was perhaps one of the most radical of the Rethinking Parks projects, both in terms of changing the way parks are managed and in considering how they could provide new social and environmental benefits. As well as increasing opportunities for volunteering, the team at Burnley are implementing permaculture approaches to their parks management. These include introducing meadow management and commercial crop production to heritage parks, introducing bee hives, and increasing active woodland management and timber production.

Common themes emerging from Rethinking Parks, COMA and Delivering Differently, include an increasing focus on partnerships between local authorities, local people and businesses, the need to have a better understanding of costs, diversifying income including new forms of giving, and thinking of parks and public spaces as assets that can provide opportunities not just for relaxing and recreation but for employment, training and the production of food and other renewable resources. It is striking that despite the evidence showing the positive impacts of green space on health, on property values, and its role in mitigating against the impacts of climate change, we are still seeing little in the way of new income from health budgets, capturing uplift in property or business values, or the development of payment for ecosystem services / natural capital approaches in any of the new models currently being developed and tested.

None of these programmes has identified a ‘silver bullet’ that will keep our parks open, well managed, free to use, and protected from development without the need for local authority funding or support. They are, however, helping us all to identify a new set of tools and approaches for managing parks and public open spaces for the 21st century.

Shared Assets is keen to apply and extend the learning developed by these programmes with other local authorities who are currently rethinking their parks, so do get in touch if you think we can help.

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