Are parks more than just grass and tulips?

Published: 15 February 2017

A muddy park, with waterfowl including ducks and coots standing in the foreground
Ask 100 people what makes their local park valuable to them and you will probably receive 100 different answers. 

But each different answer will reveal a consistent recognition that parks are special places. Parks have received deserved press attention over the past few days following the publication of a Communities and Local Government Committee report which warned that these treasured assets” are standing at a precipice of decline. Although parks provide a range of vital contributions to areas like public health, community integration and flooding prevention, they are competing for funding in already stretched council budgets. In this environment, unless parks are (rightly) seen as more than just grass and tulips they face sliding into irreparable decay.

Press coverage on the report has focussed heavily on the recommendation that parkrun (and other park user groups) should contribute volunteer time for maintenance or fundraising activities. Although this might contribute towards park upkeep, we believe a far more radical shake up to park management is needed. Parks are complex social ecosystems with a range of uses, users and benefits, and therefore require a model that enables everyone who benefits to both contribute to and shape their future. In fact, the report encourages councils to publish plans that recognise these wider values and consider alternative management models that ensure parks remain freely available to everyone.

Social Finance is working with the National Trust to help Newcastle Council work out a way forward for its parks through the challenge of 90%+ budget cuts. We have spent the last 6 months researching the feasibility and associated benefits of transferring the operation of a large proportion of the city’s parks to a new, independent charitable Parks Trust” (see our online guide to this model, which has been operating successfully in Milton Keynes for 25 years). This is not about passing the buck to volunteers but about providing a new structure that encourages and enables innovative management and funding, so that those who benefit from the parks can contribute to their upkeep, that communities have greater ownership of their spaces and that parks can benefit from social investment and other sustainable funding sources.

Yes, this is a challenge. It is hard to make parks work for everyone: for the person who wants to join a group run and the person who wants peace and quiet; the commuter who wants to buy coffee on the walk to work and the resident who wants a place free from commercialisation; the friends who want to attend an outdoor event, and the dog walker who wants unrestricted access to all areas of the park at all times. But this tapestry is part of what makes parks so special: how many other places bring together so many sections of society to share one space which represents something different to each individual user?

Newcastle Council are leading the way in thinking through how to sustainably manage their parks for future generations and yesterday launched their public consultation asking residents to provide their thoughts and views to help shape the way forward. We hope that the consultation reveals the public’s hopes and visions for the future of their parks, and are excited to be helping Newcastle become the pioneer in establishing a new model that allows these important spaces to grow and flourish.

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