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. However, our public parks and greenspaces have been under increasing pressure in recent years, with limited resources available to adapt to changing circumstances.
In the face of up to 60% reductions in spending on parks services, our 2013 report Rethinking Parks: New business models for parks argued that UK parks services should look to new models of funding and management, including working with community, social and private enterprises. The reality is, however, that these services have little budget or time to invest in trialing new ways of working.
Between 2014 and 2020, Nesta, in partnership with The National Lottery Heritage Fund and The National Lottery Community Fund backed 24 innovations, with £3 million in funding and support.
Over two rounds of programming, the projects tested and replicated ideas that had the most promise to help fund and sustain the UK’s public parks.
Expanding the innovation landscape in public parks
In the context of huge fiscal constraints and reductions in public spending, through running the first cohort of Rethinking Parks projects we established that the landscape for innovation in parks and greenspaces is broader than income generation. In fact, there is a pipeline of promising ideas and approaches in the parks sector, from alternative funding solutions and more inclusive approaches to governance, to smarter management of resources through the use of data and technology and renewable energy generation. These creative ways of working offered real potential to scale and replication into other contexts.
A highlight has been the emergence of Parks Foundations in the UK, starting with Bournemouth Parks Foundation in our first cohort.
You can read more about the grantees and what we learnt in the Rethinking Parks Highlights and Learning to Rethink Parks report.
With the second cohort of Rethinking Parks projects, we were able to support other towns and cities to adopt the Parks Foundations model.
Through this round of funding, promising models of community management were also tested to see if they could scale up, and new approaches and technologies, such as alternative funding using contactless donations and using data analytics to support park management activities were prototyped.
We’ve created a series of publications summarising the learning from each of the clusters:
- Experimenting with contactless donations in parks
- Using data in parks
- Harnessing renewable energy in parks
- People power in parks
Key learning on innovation in parks
Nesta has worked with social innovators in many fields. Whilst there are common habits, mindsets and approaches that are important for innovators in any field, our experience in the parks field taught us three key lessons for innovating in the parks sector:
- A broad range of people can be “parks innovators”.
With the emergence of Parks Foundations and the empowerment of communities, partnerships with universities and tech companies, many can bring new energy, passion and skills to parks. It’s important for the field to be open to the fact that good ideas may come from anywhere.
Enabling collaboration across different actors to innovate, with support as well as funding will remain important in the coming years.
- There’s no such thing as a “quick fix”.
Local authorities need to maintain a strong role in the maintenance of public parks, even when adopting radically different management models. This does not mean that they should work alone. There are clear opportunities for councils to play a strong strategic role in shaping green spaces, working together with communities that share their stewardship.
- Park services need to understand communities and collaborate across different sectors, communities and professions.
The role of park managers is becoming more and more about bringing different actors together, working with communities, engaging local businesses and responding to new opportunities such as renewable energy generation. To do this well, they need time and resources to test and develop innovative solutions, understand what works, as well as support to develop the habits, mindsets, and skills for innovation.
As we bring the Rethinking Parks programme to a close, we are glad that two grantees from the second cohort (Bournemouth Parks Foundation, Bristol Council) and two project partners (Nottingham Council and Edinburgh Council) have each received between £500k and £1 million as part of the Future Parks Accelerator. This is a partnership of The National Lottery Heritage Fund and the National Trust which, building on some of the work councils have been doing through Rethinking Parks, takes a more holistic approach across their whole parks services.
Now is not the time to stop innovating, and of course the parks innovators have no plans to. Our experience of working with parks innovators up and down the country, both inside of local authorities parks teams, and outside in universities, community organisations, social enterprises and charities, shows there is a real community of experimenters, designers and campaigners working to enable our parks and greenspaces to evolve, adapt and continue to be at the heart of our communities. But to face the challenges and opportunities ahead, we must continue to adopt and spread the mindset, habits and tools that can support this innovation.
The challenges and opportunities ahead create a loud and clear call for us to keep innovating for the future of our parks and greenspaces. We have brought together a collection of perspectives to share some of the innovation opportunities and challenges that lay ahead.
This essay collection presents seven visions of the future of parks and greenspaces, featuring essays, provocations, and fiction. Whilst not exhaustive in their possibilities, these contributions seek to encourage us all to be bold in our imagination about the role of parks and greenspaces in our communities in the coming years.