No park is an island
It’s Love Parks Week – the time we celebrate our squares, playgrounds and green spaces across Britain’s towns and cities. More often than not, we consider these spaces as refuges and havens removed from the hubbub of 21st-century life. We see them as somehow the antithesis of city life and of modernity. But in separating parks and green spaces out from the wider world, we are at risk of neglecting them as a critical part of our cities’ infrastructure and systems. We need to bring outside thinking and inclusive planning into our parks for them to continue to be relevant to all and invested in.
Here are three strategies I think will help ensure our parks and green spaces maximise their benefit for all, and are sustained to do so for decades to come.
- Leverage the potential of digital technology
It’s easy to blame technological advances for creating a rift between the virtual and natural worlds. Yet digital technology has opened up opportunities for understanding, curating and sharing new insights about our green spaces, as well as supporting better decision making. The US based Trust for Public Land’s Urban Heat Risk explorer app helps people in major US cities to understand whether they live in a ‘heat island’ (a literal hotspot in a city where temperatures can be several degrees warmer than other neighbourhoods). People can then be supported to plant trees and make other environmental interventions that will reduce temperatures.
Closer to home, our Rethinking Parks is supporting a number of teams which are using digital technology to test new business models that will sustain our public parks. For example, Bournemouth Parks Foundation is testing the opportunity that real-time digital giving can provide to translate people’s affection for parks into donations made while in the park itself.
- Make it easy for a wider set of stakeholders to contribute
You’d struggle to find a person who actively dislikes parks. In many cases, though, the avenues through which people can contribute to parks are limited; to many, it can feel like a closed shop of engagement. Through Rethinking Parks we’re developing a deeper understanding of the range of ways multiple stakeholders can contribute to parks. Even business preferences differ: some want pre-coordinated activities (as in the case of Darlington Rethinking Parks’ experience) while others value a forum where ideas can be co-created and delivered (as in the case of ParkHack).
We’re learning too that there’s a strong appetite for volunteering, but not necessarily through ‘Friends of’ groups. The Go to the Park VIP’s (Volunteers in Parks) scheme in Burnley has developed volunteering specialisms working with parks staff, rather than being organised directly through Friends’ Groups. The common thread across this diverse set of projects is that they’re open to how people can give their time or money to parks and committed to making it easy to do so.
- Align parks to the cities’ resilience agenda
Increasingly cities are exposed to chronic stresses and acute shocks, and are gearing up to continue to thrive despite these uncertainties. The question then shouldn’t be “How can we protect our public parks and green space from these influences?”, but “What role can they play in prevention and mitigation of these threats?” Earlier this year, the Natural Capital Committee’s The State of Natural Capital report recommended that the National Infrastructure Plan should include natural capital (nature assets we rely on to produce different goods and services such as clean water) hand in hand with grey infrastructure.
The city of Rotterdam knows this opportunity well, as parks and open spaces are supported and managed as part of a wider water and flood management system. Parks can be solutions to a range of other problems, whether that is assisting with employability, mitigating environmental impacts like pollution or improving health outcomes. The urban resilience agenda opens up a whole new opportunity for parks to be a core part of city planning conversations and investment.
These three recommendations are of course not the sum of interventions and approaches we can take. If you have strategies that have elevated your parks and green spaces to being central to your city’s decision making or citizens’ engagement, then let us know.