Mark Walton reflects on nine years of supporting public, private and community sector clients to develop new models for the management of parks and open spaces.

Whilst our work covers all kinds of land use (from horticulture, farming, and woodland management to boatyards, bike parks and an assortment of community uses of land and buildings) a consistent element, particularly of our consultancy work, has been to support clients to develop new models for the management of public parks and open spaces.

Parks are perhaps the epitome of ‘common good land use’. From pocket parks to country parks they are part of the fabric of our towns and cities and play an important role in most of our lives. They are some of our most democratic spaces, free to use and open to all. They are places where we unwind, reflect, let off steam, exercise, find solitude, meet up with friends and family, gather to celebrate and to protest. They also play an important environmental role, acting as green lungs, improving air quality, providing urban cooling, absorbing rain water, and acting as important habitats and wildlife corridors.

Despite all of this we have tended to take our parks for granted. There is no statutory duty on local authorities to maintain them and so as austerity and cuts to local government spending started to bite in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis local authorities started to look to develop new models for managing them which would reduce their costs, increase the income they generated or in some case transferred responsibility for them entirely into new legal structures. They also became much less willing to take on new parks and green spaces arising from new housing developments in their areas meaning that developers also had to consider alternative models for their long term financing and stewardship.

The range of uses and functions of parks is something we celebrate and value but it can also be a source of tension and conflict when it comes to creating new models for their management.

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How do the voices of local people who all value their parks in different ways get their voices heard in governance and decision making? How do you increase income whilst retaining parks as open, free to use and largely uncommercialised spaces? How do you ensure that parks are welcoming to all local residents and don’t become dominated by a small group of people? How do you create new opportunities for volunteering and engagement without expecting local residents to manage a complex public amenity for free?

Over the past nine years we have helped local authorities, community groups, private landowners and development corporations tackle these questions and have supported the development of new charitable trusts, community partnerships, and business models for flagship recreational facilities and country parks. We have developed an innovative Parks Improvement District model based on securing levies from local business owners, a financial and governance model for a new Garden City, and an alternative delivery model for a local authority parks service.

We are currently working with a metropolitan combined authority to develop a new parks foundation, with two London boroughs and their local community groups to help them understand how their parks can deliver better health and wellbeing outcomes for residents, with a large private landowner to develop a charitable trust to manage their flagship park, and with a community partnership to develop a vision and community governance for their park.

During this period we have seen and participated in a number of park innovation programmes such as the Rethinking Parks and Future Parks Accelerator support the development of new models and approaches, we have contributed to a Select Committee’s Public Parks Inquiry, supported asset transfer processes through the Community Ownership and Management of Assets programme, and written guides on asset transfer of parks and community use of derelict spaces and dreamed of utopian future governance models.

So what has really changed over the past decade?

After a period of exploration and innovation a number of more common models are starting to emerge. The transfer of ownership or long leases of public parks to new ‘parks trusts’ is rare with most local authorities wanting to maintain their control over day to day core management functions, in some cases bringing them back in house rather than contracting out commercially.

More common is the development of more entrepreneurial or commercial approaches to management, making use of assets, increasing events and concessions etc and more examples of working in partnership to add value to the core in house management. These partnership approaches include working with existing Friends groups and other community organisations – or setting up new ‘parks foundations’ – to add value through fundraising, animation and engagement.

There is also increasing recognition of the role that parks and open spaces have to play in mitigating against the impacts of climate change and exploration of innovative financing solutions that seek to put a financial value on the natural capital value of green spaces in order to unlock new forms of investment.

Covid-19 has highlighted further the value of parks and green spaces to our physical and mental wellbeing and highlighted the inequalities faced by marginalised communities in terms of access to and quality of their local green space and has the potential to drive greater demands from local residents in terms of their involvement in decision making, the quality and equity of their green spaces.

There also remains a significant issue of the types of financial and management arrangements being put in place for new developments which are too often unaccountable to residents who are increasingly paying for their maintenance through levies and ground rents.

As both public and private sector finances continue to be squeezed, and our relationships to public space continue to change as a result of the pandemic, we expect to see further changes to the management, financing and governance of our parks and open spaces and will continue to support clients looking to increase the benefits they can deliver for people and the environment, the livelihoods they can support, and the ways in which local residents and parks users can have more of a say in how they are managed.

If you’re considering how to create or develop a new model for your local park, new development or parks estate get in touch to find out how we can help.

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