Parks and urban green space: back to the 80s?

From London to Sheffield a city’s parks and open spaces are often referred to as its ‘green lungs’, however new research published today by The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) suggests those lungs are in serious danger of running out of air.

In examining the condition of the UK’s public parks, the report unveils stark findings: almost half of councils are considering selling local parks, 81% of council parks departments have lost skilled management staff since 2010 and 77% have lost front-line staff.

Walking for health walk in parkThis is alarming news. In this country where 80% of us live in towns and cities, parks and urban green spaces provide a haven from the stresses and hectic pace of modern life. An estimated 34 million people regularly visit parks, benefitting everyone - of all ages - in communities across the land.

But it has not always been this way. Back in the 1980s many green spaces were badly maintained, no-go areas blighted by fly tipping, anti-social behaviour and crime. Over the past couple of decades, thanks largely to lottery funding, the majority of our parks are now in much better condition.

This is good for walkers, for safe and pleasant places to walk are as important in towns and cities as they are in the countryside. And it’s good for public transport, where walking – as the most sustainable form of transport – can be encouraged by the provision of well-maintained green spaces. Parks are an important part of local walking networks, offering convenient shortcuts to the local shops and attractive alternatives to plodding along polluted pavements.

And of course parks are good for our health. Often I come across puffing joggers, yelling footballers or an occasional Tai Chi enthusiast, exercising for free in their local green gym. But parks also benefit those who are very unfit or have a disability or a long term health condition. Every year 70,000 people across England benefit from the Ramblers' Walking for Health schemes – run jointly with Macmillan Cancer Support – and most of these take places in parks which provide a safe, easy and accessible environment.

The health benefits of parks have long been recognised; indeed many were created in the first place in order to improve the health and wellbeing of people living in the rookeries and slums of overcrowded industrial cities. But these remain just as relevant today, and parks and green spaces make important contributions in helping tackle more recent health concerns, from improving air quality to mitigating heat waves.

Park walk in CardiffThese health benefits should keep the bean counters happy - physical inactivity costs NHS England £1.8 billion/year and the wider economy £20 billion/year - and for those concerned with affairs of the soul, there is strong evidence that exposure to nature and green space improves one’s wellbeing.

I don’t need convincing. Watching the starlings digging up beakfuls of worms in my local park always improves my mood, as does hearing the wind rustle through the poplars or smelling the freshly cut grass. And as a parent I can let my son loose in its safe, open expanses, where he can run off his boundless energy and I can read the paper or catch up on the gossip with a neighbour.

The community spirit that parks help foster creates pleasant neighbourhoods and increases social connections. Government departments call this ‘building social capital’; even estate agents seize on this, often using access to local green space as a key selling point. Perhaps they’ve based on this on evidence, such as a recent survey by Natural England which found 66% of people who visited the natural environment last year did so within 2 miles of their home.

Despite all this dramatic cuts to local authority budgets have opened up funding gaps for many parks and green spaces. As local councillors face hard choices about which services they can afford to fund, parks are seen as a soft option.

So what future for our parks? We cannot allow parks to fall into disrepair and return to their former degraded, unwelcoming state but with scarcer resources available how do we prevent a return to the '80s?

Urban park walkThe Ramblers would like to see councils focus more on getting more of what we already have. Too many parks and green spaces remain unvalued and hidden away; yet walking can unlock their potential and help local authorities meet their statutory duties on improving public health.

Councils should then be required to produce local plans to address this, and meet a new duty to provide and maintain high-quality green space and the structures which support it (including volunteering). And as local planning authorities they must require developers to include green space in new development proposals, as well as new and convenient walking networks.

All this requires government support. Perhaps they might like to start by conducting a comprehensive assessment of the economic value of parks and urban green spaces, which will help to inform policy and unlock new sources of funding. The Ramblers is standing by, ready to help in order to ensure those lungs keep on breathing.

Tom Fewins is the Ramblers Policy Manager. You can follow him on twitter @RamblersTom.