Five lessons to date from Rethinking Parks
Skip to content

Five lessons to date from Rethinking Parks

In the very informative book 'The Innovators DNA' questioning and experimentation are evidenced as critical for an innovation mind-set. But doing things few have done before, and then sharing what happened (even when it flopped) isn’t easy.

Our social norms mean we are have a bias for the tried and tested, and an even stronger adversion to admitting mistakes. American scholar, Brene Brown writes and talks about the negative impact that connecting mistakes with shame has on personal, professional and societal creativity. She argues that in fact vulnerability (the 'willingness to do something with no guarantees') is the 'birthplace of innovation, creativity and change'. Whilst Brown's style and approach may not be one that reasonates with everyone, her message is still universal - we need to be open to making mistakes and also to talk about them in order to learn.

Through Rethinking Parks we’ve creating the environment for people to try something new, reflect on what happened and share the learning from it. We’re also working with teams to identify what’s going well and what could have gone better so that the wider sector will benefit. Just as the scientific community can build on previous knowledge and research as learning is documented and shared, we are working with our participants to share insights for the good of all.

I applaud our Rethinking Parks teams’ openness to a taking leap and sharing what happened, especially when it means you need to change gear or even approach entirely. And even though it’s early days in the programme, we are already learning a lot. Here are my five favourite lessons learned to date from Rethinking Parks:

1. The obvious suspects are not necessarily the best

In developing the Parks Improvement District (PID) concept in Bloomsbury, the team wanted to test what works best in one of the 9 area squares, and use learning to inform the area-wide approach.

The first idea was test in the square with the most engaged community. The community though were keen to see the approach trialled in a different environment. So, it was back to square two (excuse the pun!) for the project team. Through working directly with businesses, residents and institutions there are promising early signals for a new life for a less loved square - all as a result of bringing the different groups together. It has been an unexpected and really encouraging outcome, all as a result of having to change tack. 

Shirley Blake, the Bloomsbury Squared Programme Manager, commented "it really demonstrates how important it is to work alongside the local groups who have a very clear understanding of the local factors, what might and might not work in different localities, and to make sure that we build on this knowledge."

2. To be in it together, you need time physically together

I was lucky enough to visit Everton Park for the first time last summer and saw both the opportunity and the challenge in developing a much stronger level of community engagement for the park. Fast forward to 2015, and over the last month the Everton team and I had been talking at cross purposes about what the steps to building this engagement might look like. We couldn’t quite articulate it in a common language. Last week we spent an incredibly useful few hours in the same location and got further in terms of common understanding than our phone calls or e-mails over weeks did. The same insight was also reflected as the team described how far and how fast things can move when the Friends and Land Trust can have time as a team together. It’s easy in this world of immense technological developments to default to virtual systems of communication. But when building a shared vision or shared understanding are the critical tasks at hand, nothing beats the power of being face to face.

"It is this direct contact between people that can mean so much, sometimes we forget how important it is to simply spend time talking to each other", reflected Paul Scragg, project coordinator at the Land Trust.

3. The first idea you come up with may not be the best idea

When exploring new revenue sources for their underused building at Eastbrookend Country Park, the Eastbrookend Rekindled team thought they’d hit on a great long term plan: lease the space to another team within the council who needed a new office. It was a good solution, but the commissioning of market research enabled other options to be explored. The team are now doing a feasibility study to adapt some of the space for small ecologically-focussed businesses to have tenancies, creating an eco-enterprise hub. This option could bring in more income and footfall than the first solution ever could have. 

Scott Sullivan, Manager at the Thames Chase Trust, reflected, "Bringing in an external perspective through the market research allowed us to better understand the strategic opportunities.  While this took us away from our original vision, it resulted in a revised, exciting idea for the future that better reflects the strengths of the past. (Informed) pragmatism has been our friend!"

4. The things you think will be straight forward are often not

The team at Bournemouth Borough Council knew they had a long job ahead of them to establish a Parks Foundation that could help enhance the borough’s parks. The team were thorough and diligent in getting the right decisions, paper work and resources in place to have their Charity Commission application accepted. This process took as long as expected. What wasn’t anticipated was the time and process involved in establishing a bank account for a charitable organisation. Unlike personal bank accounts, specific roles and responsibilities have to be formally in place, and much of the authorisations have to take place in person. Sometimes it’s the thing you assume will be a breeze that create delays.

Project Manager, Theresa McManus said, 'As well as having taken longer than expected, we have had some bad luck. We were keen on going with the Nationwide Building Society, only to find that they’d just stopped doing treasurer’s accounts. And then, we decided to go with Santander, but they’d just introduced bank charges for charities which made it a no-go for us. We’re hoping 3rd time lucky...'

5. The more concrete you can be, the more likely you’ll get people on board

The Darlington Rethinking Parks Project seeks to connect Darlington businesses and 'Friends Of' groups in 3 parks. The team had a good start with engaging both businesses and the Friends in identifing where skills and experience could best be matched. The Darlington team have been great at engaging people from the onset, but their learning is that once on-board, businesses want to have specific ideas and events to engage in.  In response, a timetable of activities and opportunities across the year has being developed to enable teams to keep the early interest and momentum in contributing to parks going.  

Lisa Locke, of Groundwork North East, reflects on the project, "The Rethinking Parks programme has been an exciting to one to be engaged with. It is allowing us to explore the different options on how businesses can be involved. Now we have some businesses supporting the project we are looking forward to seeing some work taking place in the Parks".

From June we will be able to share much more detail about the business models being tested through Rethinking Parks, as well as further insights and reflections from the parks teams themselves.


Lydia Ragoonanan

Lydia Ragoonanan

Lydia Ragoonanan

Senior Programme Manager

Lydia was a Senior Programme Manager within Nesta's Innovation Lab.  She developed and managed a range of practical innovation programmes.She worked on a range of social action funds, …

View profile