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Graham Duxbury – Start in the Park

03 August 2016

Chief Executive of Groundwork UK, Graham Duxbury, celebrates the impact parks can have on our lives

Close your eyes and think back to a place from your childhood in which you were happy. When asked to do this a majority of adults see themselves in the open air, often in a park or in contact with nature.

I’m no exception. Bold Venture Park in Darwen, at the bottom of our road, was a place to hang out with friends, take risks and enjoy trysts. To this day every path, pond and pergola conjures a memory and represents a building block in my personal, social and emotional development.

Going back there now, it’s great to see how a committed Friends Group is finding new ways of ensuring that people of all ages can benefit from the well-proven restorative and recreational benefits of green space. But in many neighbourhood parks and green spaces there are worrying signs. Paths are slightly more rutted, ponds more silted, plants less well tended, playgrounds showing signs of disrepair.

This isn’t surprising. Parks and leisure services budgets in many local authorities have been a big casualty of spending cuts. Where parks like Bold Venture used to have a team of dedicated keepers, now it’s more likely that local authorities have a handful of people at most to maintain their entire estate of parks, cemeteries, playgrounds and sports pitches.

Given this sudden and seismic change, those charged with managing our precious green infrastructure should be applauded for their ingenuity in reducing their cost base, diversifying their revenue streams and developing new delivery models. However, most would agree that the mantra of more for less is reaching its limit.

You might wonder what the fuss is about. Parks aren’t being sold off or mothballed, most of the big ones are maintaining their Green Flag status and surveys show that people are using them more. Unlike other services, a drop in investment and a decline in standards takes a while to be noticed. Decay is gradual, but history tells us that once the rot sets in it can be costly to turn around.

The future of our parks and green spaces is topic that is getting politically hotter. The Heritage Lottery Fund will this summer produce its second ‘State of UK Parks’ report – just in time to provide the backdrop for an enquiry by the CLG Select Committee. These developments are all welcome but, as with the national innovation programme Rethinking Parks run by NESTA, are unlikely to identify a silver bullet that gives us a quick fix to the problem.

This shouldn’t disappoint us. In fact we should be reassured that we already have all the models, tools and techniques we need. Our challenge is to find the national – and local – political will to apply them at the right scale and to develop a narrative powerful enough to inspire communities and businesses to play their part in protecting and improving the places that keep us well, keep our communities strong, attract inward investment and help combat the impacts of climate change.

But there’s another reason why our parks and green spaces matter, and that’s the power they have to shape the way we feel about where we live and motivate us to become more active citizens. In so many communities parks and green spaces help to forge the identity of a place, to give it character and to act as a focus for significant gatherings – from summer fetes to remembrance services. They can be used to commemorate, to honour, to reflect a common heritage or to celebrate diversity.

What’s more they can be the crucible for democratic engagement. Protecting or improving a cherished green space is the first experience many people have of campaigning or collective action. It delivers tangible results, helps people understand the workings of local government and encourages communities to see what else they could achieve to improve their neighbourhood.

If we want to see more people involved in shaping the future of their communities and campaigning for beauty in the public realm then we could do worse than starting in the local park. The next few months are likely to see calls for increased public funding or new duties on councils. Given the prevailing politics and economics these are big asks.

So, at the same time we need to focus on ensuring that communities – and councils – have more help at their disposal: help to inspire and mobilise volunteers; help to unlock business support; help to align local budgets; and help to maximise the revenue and social value of our precious natural assets.