There are over 27,000 urban greenspaces in the UK, with more than half the UK population regularly making use of them. Treasured assets, often central to the lives of their communities, parks and greenspaces provide people with over £34 billion of health and wellbeing benefits per year, according to Fields in Trust’s research.
It was concerns about health inequalities and poor housing conditions in booming industrial towns that led to the creation of parks in the late-Nineteenth Century, and although sometimes hard to quantify, these benefits have long been recognised, including by politicians.
The past few months have seen a steady increase in demand for parks and greenspaces according to Google’s Mobility Index, whereas use of other public spaces has dramatically declined.
Lockdown has also reignited the wider debate over public and private greenspace, exposing its unequal distribution, reflecting the inequalities that exist in our society.
Recent data from the Office for National Statistics shows that 1 in 8 British households has no access to a private or shared garden. The percentage rises to 1 in 5 in London, the highest proportion in Great Britain. However, 44 percent of Londoners do live within a five-minute walk of a park or public green space.
Meanwhile, a stark 2.7 million people across Great Britain do not even have access to a greenspace within a 10-minute walk from home (Green Space Index, 2020). Despite growing recognition of their value , the planning system has not created enough new public greenspaces to keep up with population growth, while wider community spaces are increasingly under threat of being sold due to financial pressures on local authorities. This measure is expected to rise by a further 170,000 people in the next five years, a 5 percent increase.
In the early days of lockdown, some councils temporarily closed parks such as London’s Victoria Park due to difficulties enforcing social distancing rules. This generated concern from communities and media attention, with commentators arguing that confinement without access to greenspace during lockdown would have had a devastating impact on the mental and physical health of those living in high-density urban areas without a garden. Perhaps because of this pressure, only a small number of local authorities actually closed any parks, according to a survey by the National Federation of Parks and Greenspaces.
However, disparities in access and outcomes existed long before COVID-19. Research on Covid-19’s impact on English towns published last month by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge University finds that access to greenspaces is closely linked to their population’s health outcomes. The causal nature of this relationship is hard to establish, but the correlation is very striking with the least healthy towns – measured by responses to a question about general health in the Census - very unlikely to have easy access to a park or greenspace. A closer look at access figures also reveals that in England black people are almost four times as likely as white people to have no outdoor space at home.
In the context of the ongoing pandemic, and the growing focus upon the need to exercise daily, away from other people, this is a salutary and important finding.
With parks budgets struggling to cover the basics, local authorities and communities looking to restore or improve their greenspaces have looked to new ways of doing things, and support has been put in place through programmes like Rethinking Parks and the Future Parks Accelerator. Since 2013, our work on the former with National Lottery Community Fund and National Lottery Heritage Fund has supported two cohorts of parks innovators to test and develop new business models and income streams, giving parks managers space to trial and test options to sustain and invest in parks.
As our second programme draws to a close in the coming months, we will be sharing learning from our work, but also challenging the sector to think about “what’s next?” in terms of how we can best support parks and communities.
Short term funding and survival have been the imperatives for parks and greenspace innovation programmes. Can a broader shared understanding of the value of greenspaces bring urgency to a different approach?
This pandemic has brought challenges, but also holds opportunity. Lockdown has forced us to rethink what we want or need our lives to look like and start reorganising our shared spaces. We might spend less time in crowded bars, theatres and gyms, but also come together in outdoor spaces more often. Public parks might adapt, but will change be incremental or a chance to reimagine what greenspaces can be? Could new innovation methods, such as participatory futures, help us redesign them?
Whatever the approach, parks professionals, local authorities and communities need to work together, not only to address the gap in parks funding, but to build a shared vision for how parks and greenspaces could be designed, managed and used in the future.