The Benefits of Parks
Parks are good for bodily and mental health since they help in the fight against obesity, are good for biodiversity and lower city temperatures in the summer. They are free, whereas other ways of entertaining your family are not. Whatever savings might be made to taxpayers by cuts to parks, will be spent several times over by those same citizens on other distractions.
As major cities become more populated and rising property prices mean fewer people can afford houses with gardens, they are becoming more vital. They are also incredibly good value; the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces estimates that the combined expenditure by local authorities on open spaces in England, Scotland and Wales is about £1.2bn per year, or 0.15% of total public expenditure.
Despite this, Britain’s parks are now facing their greatest dangers for a generation. Their maintenance budgets are being halved or removed. Local authorities, desperate to reduce their costs, are trying to exploit them with every commercial use they can think of, or offload their care onto the private sector, or on to friends’ groups and community associations who are no more able to look after them on minimal budgets than the council.
The consequences are that parks become shabbier, uglier, more badly maintained and eventually more dangerous. Drew Bennellick, the Heritage Lottery Fund’s head of landscape and natural heritage, says that local authorities are losing the skills of ecology, arboriculture, horticulture and landscape architecture, resulting in random tree planting, a huge increase in herbicides, fountains being shut down, graffiti not being removed, mismatched street furniture and cafes being replaced by mobile food units. He says that some maintenance contracts only allow thirty seconds to prune each shrub, so they are hacked into small spheres. You end up with bare soil and a few shrubs in ball shapes.
The Heritage Lottery Fund noted a growing gap between the rising use of parks and declining funding; a gap that does not bode well for the future condition and health of the nation’s public parks. The Commons committee also said that central government should provide vision, leadership and coordination.
National Government boasts of a £1.5m fund to deliver eighty‐seven pocket parks. It says that councils have the freedom to spend their much‐reduced funding on meeting local priorities, including maintaining local parks. This rejection of responsibility is the reason why parks all over the country are degrading with Local authority budgets being cut drastically. Looking after parks is not a statutory duty, so, even though their running costs might be less than half a per cent of a local authority's budget, they continue to get cut.
The first remedy that desperate councils turn to, tends to be commercial activity such as food and beverage outlets, funfairs, concerts, and similar events. Bennellick says that events in parks can be incredibly successful and cites the success of Nottingham’s parks in working with business and community groups to raise funding from commercial uses. In surveys, 60% of park users were happy with more of such activity. Christopher Woodward, of the Garden Museum in London, says you shouldn’t always be frightened of the private sector. He points out that Vauxhall Gardens, which for two centuries were London’s most famous place of leisure, were private.
Councils go to the private sector, both to run parks and exploit the commercial opportunities they offer, but the profit motive does not have the long‐term wellbeing of natural assets at heart. Bennellick argues as well as creating those shrivelled shrubs, private contractors have no interest in the bigger picture. To maximise their environmental benefits, he says, parks need a strategic approach that considers them not in isolation but in relation to each other, but there’s not much chance of this happening in a minimum‐cost maintenance contract.
Until now, parks have been pretty much sacrosanct. You don’t build on them unless to create structures that enhances them, such as cafes and bandstands. Many have covenants that protect them but others, such as examples in Liverpool, don’t and even covenants can be undermined by determined lawyers. Once they start being eroded, a principle is breached and consequently there is no guarantee where the destruction will stop.
Apart from commercialisation, outsourcing and selling off, local authorities also respond to cuts by passing responsibility to friends’ groups and community associations. Their motivation can work wonders, as can be seen throughout the country. In Liverpool, Everton, the Friends of Walton Hall Park, have supplemented the work of the council’s emaciated staff. The Friends have revived and transformed the park, cleared the lakes of algae, managed the new growth of trees, replanted, cleaned and installed seats and litter bins. Their only assets are volunteers, a few thousand from fundraising, donations of plants and cuttings from private gardens, energy and enthusiasm.
Strangely, given the importance of this collective national treasure, there’s not much by way of powerful national organisations to fight for their interests. There are valiant voluntary bodies such as National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, the Parks Alliance and the ninety‐year‐old Fields in Trust, but they don’t command public attention as they should. As many campaigners have argued, it might also help if care of parks became a statutory duty for local authorities. In this patriotic Brexit era, when Britain is learning to stand strong and alone again, parks are a British achievement and an asset to be proud of, imitated and envied across the world. If national government had the decency even to notice that they are under threat from their policies, it would be a start.