The Parks Alliance held a roundtable on Friday morning to discuss the future funding of parks and public spaces. It was a great group of people: chaired by Kate Lowe, the editor of Horticulture Week, and including the head of the Wandle Valley Regional Park, representatives from the landscape industries, the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, the Land Trust, the Landscape Institute and one of our own directors, Maria Adebowale from the Living Space Project.
It kicked off with a fascinating overview of the international scene from Neil McCarthy, the deputy chair of World Urban Parks. He talked about some great models of parks management and funding, from the local rates based Parks Victoria model, to the philanthropist-led model of Cornwall Park in New Zealand.
Neil’s opening salvo was to ask why we are still having a conversation about how to finance parks. Have we not made the case well enough? Parks budgets remain under threat, so why aren’t governments buying the “parks product”? Neil thinks we’re suffering from the “value of parks syndrome” — there are so many reports setting out the health, social, economic and environmental value of parks that funding them should be an open and shut case.
But it isn’t. As our work in Lambeth and on the COMA programme is showing us, parks as a non-statutory service are being very hard hit by budget cuts. Even when the cuts are happening with a heavy heart, parks are not being prioritised. So what is the “parks industry” doing wrong?
There was a vigorous and wide ranging discussion. For some, the future of parks must be government funding, and the cuts must be resisted at all costs. How this is to be achieved, though, is a different and challenging question. The most interesting question, for me, was the more existential question of what a park actually is, and what it should be.
Parks have been managed differently than other council-owned land assets for many years. Is it time to let the silos that this creates go, and instead focus on the future of open space more broadly, whether a formal park or not? For many people the green space near their houses is just as (if not more) important than the formal park in the centre of town. Indeed, the developer-led model of new green spaces being associated with housing developments was put forward as one potential solution. However, we know from our experiences with resident management companies that this isn’t always straightforward, though.
Neil had good things to say about the campaign to make Greater London a National Park: a great example of getting people to think differently about what a park is or might be. Nesta’s Rethinking Parks programme will be releasing some research soon looking at the 11 projects it supported: we’ll be looking forward to seeing the lessons that have been learnt from this first formal attempt to get people to look at and think about parks differently.
A recurring question was that of leadership. Many of the flagship urban parks around the world were the brainchild of one or two charismatic people, who fundraised, persuaded and dreamed a park into existence. Do we need a new leader for parks in the UK? From my point of view, waiting for a messiah-like figure to emerge from the box hedging is a distraction. We do need leadership, but in the 21st century that needs to be about collaboration and partnership: between and across the community and the private and public sectors. We know there are community groups and social enterprises out there who see the value and potential of parks in a new and innovative way: as the setting for new types of services, as the classrooms for a new generation of citizens. They need to be supported and encouraged, which will often require the public sector to let go of some control and allow risks to be taken: something which in itself requires a nuanced type of leadership.
It seems to me that this could be an exciting time for UK parks, but the old ways of thinking, funding and managing them may not create the new future that they need. The challenge for the “parks industry” is not how to make the case for parks; the challenge is how to create the environment in which communities and their local land can thrive.