By Dr Anna Barker of the University of Leeds.
My brief was to give a short ‘think piece’ on the future of public parks, reflecting on the contemporary challenges facing the parks sector and the findings of historically-informed research that my colleagues and I at the University of Leeds have undertaken. This research has involved two key projects. The first is a study of Leeds Parks in both the Victorian period and today. The second is a study of charitable giving to parks and the recently-established Leeds Parks Fund, as part of the Rethinking Parks Programme.
My starting premise for this ‘think piece’, which may come as no surprise given that we are here today discussing the business case for investment in parks, is that the sustainability of UK public parks and the capacity of local authority park managers to continue to protect, manage and maintain them, is under unprecedented threat.
The contemporary context presents a precarious moment in the almost 200-year history of urban parks and a possible ‘turning point’ in their trajectory. Indeed, in 2017, the House of Commons inquiry concluded that Britain’s “Parks are at a tipping point, and failure to match their value and the contribution they make with the resources they need to be sustained could have severe consequences.” This is a cautionary warning that if we take parks for granted, we do so at our own peril.
The pressures on parks have been intensified and brought into sharp focus by ongoing cuts to local government budgets (notably since 2010), exacerbated by their lack of legal statutory protection and status as a ‘discretionary’ service. However, the pressures on parks that austerity has surfaced are by no means wholly novel. As Katy Layton-Jones showed in the ‘History of Public Park Funding and Management’, there is no good economic climate for parks. The problems parks face is systemic; they have never had an economic or legal strategy to sustain their long-term management.
In the face of widespread calls for parks to be made a legally protected service and subsequent pronouncements that statutory mechanisms are too complex and would not guarantee park preservation, even if implemented, we must work towards the development of new mechanisms that give effect to two key principles: first, that parks are protected from redevelopment and second, that parks are maintained to a certified quality threshold.
Our survey of over 6,000 park users in Leeds found that parks which meet recognised quality standards offer enriched user experiences and are associated significantly with higher levels of satisfaction, driving visitation. Targeting investment towards improving the quality of parks, such as the approach in Leeds, can help to maximise the social and health benefits derived from them.
I interpret the core theme of this conference, ‘Empowering Parks for the 21st Century’, as recognition of (at least) three things, which will structure the remainder of my ‘think piece’. First, it is recognition that our historic legacy of public parks remains vital to the contemporary city because these spaces offer certain benefits to people and communities that other kinds of urban spaces cannot. Indeed, for over 150 years, the creation and ongoing management and maintenance of parks as distinct green spaces has proceeded from a recognition that they deliver unique benefits to the city and its inhabitants. New York’s Central Park, emulated on the British model, is often held up as an iconic example of this distinctiveness (in terms of its composition, its value to society, its purpose, its green aesthetic and the atmosphere it creates). From large-scale city parks to smaller-scale community parks, the idea of parks as distinct green spaces set within, but apart, from the surrounding city has been a core principle underpinning their governance and management.
Maintaining urban space as a park means not developing it in any number of other ways – as a housing estate, an entertainment centre, a business centre, an industrial plant, a transport hub – which might deliver other social or economic benefits. Parks offer differential benefits, relative to other uses of space. However, like the ‘family silver’, parks are assets that are precious and can be sold – either in their entirety or in slivers – for redevelopment. Pressures on urban space raise vexed questions about how parks continue to justify their claim to differential value. The future of parks as we have understood them rests on sustaining such a claim to differential benefits in a uniquely challenging context.
Second, the core theme of ‘empowerment’ is a recognition and reflection that the contemporary context is a uniquely challenging time for park managers. The Local Government Association’s ‘graph of doom’, first published in 2012, demonstrated how (based on spending predictions) ‘statutory services and social care costs will swallow up most local council spending leaving very little for other services to the community such as libraries, parks and leisure centres’. Two consecutive reports into the State of UK Public Parks identified that: Over 90% of park managers have had their budgets cut and that 39% of LAs expect the condition of their parks to decline by 2019.
These pressures are compounded by specific demands of contemporary policy-makers that parks make more, wider-ranging and better evidenced contributions to public goods. The report of the parliamentary inquiry argued that it is no longer sufficient to assume the healthy leisure and recreational benefits of parks, but that park managers and civil servants from across governmental departments must render explicit their diverse contributions to society. This quest for renewed legitimacy through evidence of economic value tied to wider public goods – public health, social cohesion, education and environmental protection – is likely to pull the management of parks in diverse directions. At the same time, severe cuts to budgets undermine the ability of park managers to realise, let alone maximise, the differential benefits of parks.
Many local authorities, like Leeds, have been entrepreneurial in employing a diverse mix of funding models. But we must acknowledge that parks have baseline funding level if they are to meet quality standards, and that part of empowering local authority park managers to continue their leadership role requires equipping them with core funding resources. We also need to challenge the narrative that an alternative management model can necessarily resolve these core funding issues.
There is a somewhat troubling narrative that empowering park managers means that they will need to ‘do things differently’ and that parks themselves will ‘do different things’ to justify their preservation into the future. We are all aware that parks face tremendous challenges in the face of funding restraint, and we are sympathetic with the position of LAs and their responses under a decade of severe financial constraints. What we would like to highlight is that some responses to these challenges may exacerbate the difficulty of sustaining parks as beneficial and distinctive spaces. Park managers are under increasing pressure to generate external income to shoulder some of the effects of cuts. Such strategies can help to protect budgets, attract visitors and enhance user satisfaction. However, the risk today is that the nature and extent of contemporary ‘commercialisation’ may fundamentally affect people’s use and experience of parks. There are a growing number of examples across the country (particularly in London) where this may have reached a tipping point such that open public access is radically undermined or where the civic character of the park is residualised to the extent that it no longer is experienced as a distinct, green space apart from the surrounding city. If parks come increasingly to resemble the wider city, their claim to offer differential urban utility may be diluted.
There are also questions as to what happens with revenues from these events and activities – whether they are re-invested solely in the parks that host them or whether they are ring-fenced and redistributed across the portfolio of parks within a city. The danger is that large parks with commercialisable assets may become magnets for investment and visitors, leaving other parks to stagnate.
Third, the theme of ‘empowerment’ is a recognition that park governance requires revitalising in ways that not only empower park managers but also empower park users and civil society groups to become more engaged in the sustainable governance of parks. Local communities involved in parks as ‘Friends’ and other voluntary groups make a significant contribution, providing guardianship and practical work each year. In Leeds, this is equivalent to around 109 full-time staff. As recognised by The Parks Alliance and others in response to the parliamentary inquiry, volunteers have helped ‘to disguise the depth of the crisis facing parks and open spaces’. Voluntary initiatives add value, but they are not a replacement for core funding needs.
People invest significant emotional attachments to local parks, but our research suggests that the public are largely unaware of their precarious future. Many do not appreciate that local authorities do not have a statutory duty to provide and maintain parks. There are widespread public expectations that given their rich history, parks will continue to exist in perpetuity. Park users need to be better engaged in understanding current pressures on parks and actively involved to help shape future strategies to derive full benefits from parks as urban assets, be they environmental, health or well-being related or by way of social cohesion.
There is a role to be played by local authorities in harnessing the capabilities, knowledge and resources of civil society, businesses and the public through multi-lateral initiatives, such as the Leeds Parks Fund and ‘Friends’ groups, which can play an important role in supporting community-led improvements to parks, including through income generation and enhanced civic engagement. The public and businesses are not simply ‘untapped’ resources to plug a funding gap and staffing shortage, but rather should be engaged with as active co-producers of park futures with capabilities, knowledge and resources to contribute.
In conclusion, now more than ever, there is a need for an informed public debate that connects the rich heritage of parks with immanent questions about their future sustainability to assist in mobilising demands to safeguard urban parks through adequate public funding, legal protection and greater civic engagement.
The Victorian’s had a powerful sense of the park as vital element of civic life, but we have not yet captured a new overarching vision for parks in the 21st century: one that draws upon their rich heritage but remains unconstrained by it; one that does not return to us an idealised past but identifies a clear vision which secures commitment to established governing presumptions of free, open and equal access to parks, universal provision of quality parks and strategic management of resources across the portfolio of parks, without which, countervailing pressures, such as those outlined, can undermine.
Our analysis highlights the potentially transformative implications of current financial and social pressures on parks. How we act now will determine what the parks of the future will look like. It is important that we reflect honestly and critically on the decisions that we take, as we quickly grow used to the way things are.
Dr Anna Barker