An uncertain future for your local park?

During these times, people are discovering or rediscovering their local parks but with parks facing budget cuts, we are left with the question of how to sustain these valuable assets into the future. WSP in the UK's Landscaping and Urban Design team explores the past, present and future of our urban greenery...
A public area of land with grass and trees, usually in a town, where people go in order to relax and enjoy themselves
Collins English Dictionary

The UK’s public urban parks are indispensable in the lives of many and this is particularly apparent in the current context of pandemic restrictions on travel.  With people rediscovering their local neighbourhoods and perhaps newly experiencing the sounds of nature close to home, it’s time to acknowledge the important role of urban greenery for health and wellbeing. With leisure centres, gyms, playgrounds and other attractions currently closed, parks have rarely been as alluring.

Despite many direct health and wellbeing benefits to UK residents each year, the provision of public parks is not a statutory duty for local government. As parks face the continuing problem of budget cuts, we are left with the question of how to sustain these valuable assets into the future.

The understated value of parks

Urban parks give city dwellers space to escape, exercise, play, relax and socialise, and provide a whole host of other environmental, social and health benefits with a recent study estimating the wellbeing value of the UK’s parks and green spaces at £34.2bn per year (Fields in Trust 2018):

  • Parks are crucial to improve air quality, balance flooding and provide areas for wildlife to thrive in towns and cities.
  • They provide places for many events and community activities.
  • Contact with nature is known to reduce stress and anxiety and improve moods and concentration.
  • Urban parks promote healthy lifestyles by encouraging both informal physical activity and participation in more organised sports.

Funding (and the lack of it)

Funding pressures have led to reduced parks management teams with losses in horticultural, ecological and landscape skills, slowing the development of innovative models to secure the future sustainability and resilience of urban parks.

Without the appropriate level of care and attention, the physical decline of a public space can quickly change community perceptions of its value, with problem sites further absorbing allocated funds. Good maintenance and adaption to changing social and environmental needs are the keys to sustaining safe, clean and healthy spaces. Everyone should be able to enjoy healthy active outdoor recreation within walking distance of their home.

The funding and value conundrum

It is known that the presence of green space positively affects local residential property values, with a recent estimate of £131bn of value added across Great Britain (Office for National Statistics ‘UK natural capital: ecosystem accounts for urban areas’ 2018).

For organisations such as developers whose operations are profitable but inevitably have environmental implications, habitat banking and carbon offsetting schemes are ways to transfer funds to positive land management activities which increase biodiversity or store carbon. Should actions like these become an established norm to protect the parks of tomorrow? Could a ‘green space banking’ system with developers paying for credits create a generous contribution to parks?

Could parks be transferred to a different type of organisation, a non-profit one, where they can access other types of funding?

Learning by example

Place-based portfolio models where green spaces are held by non-profit trusts can enable access to new revenue opportunities. Examples such as the 6000 acres of land managed by The Parks Trust of Milton Keynes, the recently established management trust of Urban Green Newcastle with its 33 parks and 61 allotments in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and, in the USA, New York’s Central Park Conservancy show that the non-profit model can be successful; in attracting funding, reinvigorating parks and engaging people.

As residents we already contribute to parks through national and local taxes, but is this enough? Many parks have friends’ groups who volunteer time and effort to help, and in some places, residents already make a small further contribution through a local levy.  An example of the latter is Wimbledon Common and Putney Heath in London which are managed by a 150 year old charity, funded mainly by a charge paid by residents who live close to the parks.

Past, present and future

The urban park movement of the nineteenth century was driven by public health concerns and green spaces are still sustaining our everyday lives. Looking into the future we need to refresh our ideas for managing and funding these important parts of our urban fabric. Perhaps one solution lies in bringing together the interests of the developer - creating value for the company - and the parks management organisation – sustaining value in the urban environment.

This blog was written by WSP in the UK's Landscaping and Urban Design Team

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