One of the joys of working on the Parks for Health project (and there were many) was feeling part of a team. The respect for each other of the Camden and Islington green spaces officers, their public health colleagues and partners from the VCSE and health sectors was manifest from the outset. Partly this was professional, a recognition of others’ expertise and the need for complementary skills. Partly it was personal, a recognition of limitations and the willingness to learn. There was always a strong sense of working towards a common goal.
So what was the learning?
The Shared Assets team, including myself, were asked to run workshops for the project Reference Group and for frontline parks services to share our learning from the “VCSE capacity-building” workstream specifically. The aim was to help mainstream new ways of working in order to deliver the Parks for Health Strategy 2022-2030 which puts a significant emphasis on partnership. We chose to celebrate what had gone especially well and that could be built upon. For example, representatives from different sectors coming together to design activities, create products (such as guides) or support each other in problem solving (such as via cross-sector Action Learning Sets).
“Working with the community within a co-design approach has been a very positive experience for me and I have learnt a lot. We know we make a difference but now we have more purpose and knowledge, and this helps us bring the community along with us on this journey.” - Bhupesh Thapa, Central Assistant Parks Manager, Islington Council.
As is commonplace nowadays, all this collaboration was badged “co-design”, and it is true to say that the starting point – or rationale – was one of equality and pooling resources (time, skill, knowledge, networks) in a joint endeavour. In practice, however, the differences in capacity, confidence and perceived authority meant that this was not “co-design” in its purest sense where power is evenly distributed. We noticed, for instance, a tendency by VCSE contributors to defer to council staff along with a worry about potentially asking too much of them. Conversely, council staff were sometimes overly concerned about being seen to be controlling even when, ultimately, a decision was theirs to make. They also under-estimated the value of their own contributions which were (are) as important as anyone else’s.
Does this matter?
While some might see “co-design” as the gold standard for citizen or user participation, there are times when other forms of joint working are both legitimate and realistic. As much as anything, acknowledgement of strengths and opportunities but also constraints is what counts. Clarity from the outset about expectations with respect to roles and contributions is especially important as this helps to build trust as well as appreciation of what each party can or cannot bring to the table. It is also helpful to be explicit about what matters most to each participant: what they want to get from the experience and why. Often it is simply the case that priorities are not 100% aligned, but most people get this.
“Parks for Health is already changing the way we work with other groups. The networking alone from the project has been invaluable and is helping us to support more volunteering, more schools’ involvement and better co-ordination between different groups.” - Miriam Ashwell, Chair, Friends of Caledonian Park.
A big lesson for everyone involved was the value of long-term relationships. One way to develop these is to think about the best way to work together on any given project, putting effort into designing the most appropriate process for the task in hand as much as for the eventual output or product. That way, trust and mutual understanding can be gained over time. Co-production is not the only game in town.
A strengths-based approach
“Let’s play to our strengths - the council have the parks and we bring the people.” - Anita Gracie, Community Development Officer, Octopus Network.
Whatever the chosen way of working, successful teams make the most of their members’ different strengths. In this spirit, Parks for Health could be characterised as a strengths-based approach to collectively improving wellbeing and reducing health inequalities across Camden and Islington. Local VCSE organisations have the insight, connections and trust of diverse communities to address social or economic barriers to visiting parks. Parks services have the land and authority to manage public assets in ways which make them accessible and welcoming to everyone. As a “team”, the VCSE and Parks are capitalising on this and on area-based working (“Localities” in Islington; “Neighbourhoods”, in Camden) to deepen their knowledge of what people and places can offer - as well as what they might need – in order to create green spaces that are enjoyed and maintained as health assets for all. That is how they are putting parks at the heart of community life.