Graft and the butterfly
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty” Maya Angelo 1928 -2014.
The late Maya Angelo’s musing is so pertinent to parks. Their beauty takes time to develop. Over the past decades millions of pounds have been invested in our public parks, transforming many of them from no-go zones of the 1980s into some of our most treasured spaces. This past weekend’s weather provided a great opportunity for us to delight in our parks, whether through sunbathing, picnicking or simply talking a stroll.
But our public parks are at turning point of both delight and trepidation. This week, the Heritage Lottery Fund’s State of UK Parks reports increases in visitor numbers, community interest and general public satisfaction of parks over recent decades. The research affirms that parks are spaces we delight in, and are a vast improvement from the periods of decline and decay decades ago. A lot of changes took place to transform once closed or neglected parks and the investment from both Heritage Lottery Fund and the Big Lottery Fund were a large part of this transformation.
Yet juxtaposed to the good news are some hard truths - our public parks are again at risk. 86 per cent of park managers report existing and further cuts projected to their parks budgets. And with many authorities considering selling their park we may lose these cherished assets.
We need our public parks more than ever – as spaces of rest and revitalisation away from the hubbub of our cities and towns.
In his paper The London Recipe, How Systems and Empathy Make the City, Charles Leadbeater argues the reason why London is the most envied city of all the world at the moment, is not only because of its vast and efficient systems that get us from A to B or ensure there is free and fair justice for all. Other, new cities, can arguably equal (or trump) London’s efficient systems. The beauty and envy of London is its combination of systems and empathy – a quality less well developed or understood in planning terms.
London is a magically diverse city that works because its population has spaces to move efficiently, but also “spaces where they can relax, connect, find common ground, and enjoy one another’s presence.” Leadbeater argues London’s competitive advantage is its ability to create ‘soft edges’, its spaces for the inherent empathy of Londoners to become more explicit; at both large and small scales. Parks contribute to London’s beauty and success, as do other public spaces that enable people to slow down, to share, and to contemplate.
Our public parks are essential for civic agglomeration; spaces where people can come together and have shared moments of joy, kindness, laughter or even debate. Public parks allow us freedom to not focus solely on creating economic wealth, but instead are places that create societal wealth. What better spaces exist for celebrating the capacity of the human spirit than parks?
Parks matter so much to our lives - the State of UK Parks report confirms this. It takes hard work, graft and skill to create these beautiful spaces; we must ensure they continue to be celebrated. To help secure parks legacy as spaces so important for our wellbeing, Rethinking Parks will be working with eleven organisations and partnerships to test different ways to fund, maintain and manage our public parks. Over the summer we’ll be showcasing these ideas, and exploring how they might enable our public parks to remain beautiful, cherished public assets.