Learning to Rethink Parks

This report provides insights and advice from the eleven projects supported through Rethinking Parks, a £1 million programme to test new business models for public parks.

This report brings together the insights and lessons from Rethinking Parks, a joint Heritage Lottery Fund, Big Lottery Fund and Nesta programme to test new ways to fund public parks.

Key findings

  • Public parks need to diversify their funding sources to meet size of cuts
  • New partners and people will contribute to parks
  • Cost savings needn’t be at the expense of people’s enjoyment of parks

Mobilising the skills and energy of businesses, supporting people into employment whilst improving green space, using less intensive planting techniques and tapping into the public’s willingness to give have all shown impact in reducing costs for running parks. However, no one idea tested through Rethinking Parks is forecast to completely replace local authority funding.

This knowledge will dishearten some people. Others will recognise that parks, like other sectors, should never rely on just one funding source. Through this lens, Rethinking Parks has been a success. A number of the ideas tested show real promise in helping parks diversify their revenue sources. We know more too about where limitations lie.

Accurate financial data and park user insights, working with partners who bring new skills, resources and ideas, and providing space to quickly test ideas are all necessary to find out what mix of management practices and revenue opportunities are best able to sustain their park.

Recommendations for parks teams and local authorities

  • Don’t expect one answer to solve everything. Diversify your income and find new ways to maintain and manage parks at lower cost.
  • Draw on financial skills and business expertise - inside or outside your team - to understand your current costs properly, and identify opportunities to save money as well as generating additional income. Monitor spending and income in real time so that you fully understand the impact of new approaches.
  • Involve people - parks users, local businesses and residents, and others who care about parks. Understand what they need from parks, what they value and what they can contribute. Involve them in designing and delivering new ideas.
  • Look for other organisations who can address skills gaps, inject new thinking, move more swiftly, mobilise a wider network or provide capital, and build formal partnerships with them to make this happen.
  • Test your ideas in practice with small-scale prototypes. Build in as many opportunities for feedback as you can. Learn and adapt as you go.

Recommendations for government and policy makers

  • Invest in tools and methods to help the sector understand and share evidence for the financial, environmental and social value of parks. This is essential for parks teams and local authorities seeking to build a business case or attract new investment and support for parks.
  • Explore ways to help parks managing authorities build alternative long-term income streams. For example, consider how capital funding, BID levies, receipts from asset sales or planning gain could be converted into parks endowments.
  • Encourage innovation and appropriate risk taking across the parks sector. Share good practice, celebrate and endorse the pioneers from Rethinking Parks (and elsewhere). Provide sufficient funding to support the development and testing of new business models for parks.

Recommendations for funders

  • Provide targeted funding and support for teams to establish sustainable business models. This should include access to specialist financial and business advice, and building the capacity of parks teams to innovate and take risks. The Heritage Lottery Fund’s Catalyst Programme was a great example of this kind of funding, and the lessons from Rethinking Parks must inform HLF’s approach to resilience funding.
  • Deploy different funding models to help parks focus on sustainability, such as mixed grant-loan funds, setting up endowments for parks, or investment readiness support.
  • Encourage collaborations across sectors where parks can make a valuable contribution, such as health and wellbeing, environment, employment or education, as well as business and resident engagement.