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How can prototyping help the UK’s public parks?

We know that people really value their parks. Ninety per cent of households with children under five visit their park once a month, and just under 60 per cent of adults. There are now around 5,900 parks friends and user groups - a trend that has increased as people continue to show their commitment to supporting and caring for their green spaces.

However, we also know that parks are facing major challenges - public funding has been increasingly harder to come by and difficult decisions have had to be made by those running the UK’s parks services. Seventy-eight per cent of local authorities feel that public sector resource constraints have affected parks and green spaces disproportionately to other services, and over 90 per cent of parks are facing revenue cuts that look set to increase.*

In this context, thinking of new ways to try and maintain the quality and liveliness of parks is a significant undertaking. We might instinctively know that if our parks were no longer there, we would miss them greatly - but how can they be supported to meet their current challenges and show their worth in ways that can help go beyond our instinctive personal feeling and connection to much loved green spaces?

Through the Rethinking Parks programme, we are looking for people who are willing to go on a journey to explore the possibilities that are out there. We think that prototyping, combined with better use of digital and data, might be a good way to surface effective ideas. Prototyping simply involves working closely with communities and stakeholders to develop and test ideas together. It is well suited to finding out if something can work, before running an expensive pilot or rolling out the idea - this is because, throughout the process, users and communities are involved in shaping the idea. Rapid feedback and redesign is a feature of good prototyping. 

We know from the Rethinking Parks programme that ran in 2014 that digital and data are underused resources in the sector and that some of the potential benefits are not being explored. The Prototyping award stream of Rethinking Parks 2018 will help groups to discover and test ideas for themselves and will support groups to go on this journey (with some expert assistance as needed).

To help surface ideas for those who are thinking of applying to the Prototyping Award - we recently spoke to a range of experts in prototyping, data, digital development and parks to help define some starting points that could be helpful in defining a challenge to work on with digital or data:

  • Are there ways that under-used parks can become more vibrant and cared for despite continued low resourcing from council budgets?
  • How can parks demonstrate their potential mental and physical health benefits more clearly?
  • How can we better understand who currently uses parks and how, while protecting privacy?
  • What might the future role of parks volunteers and friends groups look like, if informed by data?
  • What simple tools and techniques can help people organise support and activities in conjunction with parks services?

These are just a few starting points - there are more on the application pages, which we hope will help. We are keen to hear about a wide range of challenges and ideas about how to address them- together with stakeholders and community. If the solution is not fully clear at the outset, it might be a good sign that prototyping would be a useful tool to develop the idea effectively - and so should not hold back potential applicants from applying.

The important part of prototyping is making sure that the people who care about public parks - and will be affected by the outcome - are involved at each stage. Giving parks, and the people who care about them, some thoughtful options and ideas to manage in constrained times is vital if we are to ensure parks have the best chance to thrive and be enjoyed by all.

*Statistics above are taken from The State of UK Public Parks 2016 

Author

Alice Casey

Alice Casey

Alice Casey

Head of New Operating Models

Alice leads on a portfolio of work looking at how technology is transforming communities and civic life.

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