This week we launch the Learning to Rethink Parks report that sets out the insights and impact of the eleven partnerships supported through Rethinking Parks. We have also launched a set of more detailed guides that describe the pathway, progress and advice from seven projects that we think have greatest promise for replication.
Faced with funding cuts of 60 per cent and more over the next decade, public parks in the UK are at risk. Within this context, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Lottery Fund (who have invested over £800m into public parks) teamed up with Nesta to run Rethinking Parks; an experimental programme designed to find, test and measure the impact of new ideas to sustain public parks.
Rethinking Parks supported eleven teams over an 18 month period, so that the wider sector was better armed with knowledge about promising options to bridge the pressing funding gap.
We never anticipated that all ideas would work, or that any model would completely replace the need for local authority funding. What we have found, however, is that there are a number of approaches parks teams can use to help close the funding gap. Approaches with promise include Burnley Go to the Park - a project that is changing the park maintenance regime from more intensive formal planting to less intensive meadows and perennials as a way to both reduce cost and increase biodiversity. Darlington Rethinking Parks encouraged regular volunteering by businesses to improve parks, whilst Bristol ParkWork has supported a number of participants into employment or training through their in-park horticultural skills and work experience programme.
Yet it’s not just the idea that makes a project promising. The disciplines used to test and shape new ways to fund parks are as important as what is done.
From our experience of working with the eleven teams over the past 18 months, we think there are a set of disciplines that ought to be applied as a default for the sector, rather than just confined to Rethinking Parks. These are disciplines that, regardless of idea, should put park teams in a good position to adapt promising ideas from this programme or, crucially, inspire them to develop their own. We think these disciplines should become regular practice for people in the parks sector, and with that in mind we are calling these disciplines ‘habits’.
Our seven habits for successful parks innovation are:
Park teams should broaden the number of income streams, layer income and look for opportunities that cut costs while enhancing people’s experience
Park teams should get under the skin of their finances. This practice helps identify opportunities for efficiencies, and for improvement. It’s hard to know where you can go if you don’t know where you are starting from. Bringing in external financial expertise to understand opportunities to improve the return on investment is often a helpful way to achieve this.
It’s essential to understand what people value about each park, and why. Observing, asking and involving people helps identify opportunities and barriers when developing, testing and implementing new approaches.
The first idea is rarely the best idea. Even well thought through and researched plans need tweaking when they move from concepts to concrete projects. Approaches such as prototyping build in deliberate opportunities for testing. This way ideas can be fully launched based on testing of real people’s experiences and evidence of impact.
People who love parks come from all walks of life, and Rethinking Parks has demonstrated a wealth of opportunities to tap into the energy of people who love parks, but don’t necessarily want to join a ‘Park’s Friends’ group. Through partnering with others, opportunities to tap into a wider set of resources open up. So too do different skills, mind-sets, ideas and experiences. Just as the income streams need to diversify, so too do the range of partners who can support parks.
Without permission to try new things, to test and to bring in new partners, good ideas may never get off the ground. Communicating the case for change, explaining to decision makers how risks will be managed and framing ideas within the wider strategy are ways to secure a mandate for change.
Cynics rarely change the world. Bringing in new ways to fund and sustain public parks requires a level of openness to challenge on behalf of local authorities and lead partners, as well as being open to a wider set of people and partners to shape decision making.
As Rethinking Parks programme participant, Simon Goff from Burnley Borough Council noted “We don’t have to keep doing things the same way we’ve always done them.”
This Learning to Rethink Parks report identifies just a few new ways our public parks can continue to thrive into the new century and I hope proves to be a useful resource for the sector in this quest.