Britain loves its parks. But they need a funding boost to save them

Birkenhead Park, the world's oldest municipal park, in autumn. Image: Getty.

In the first half of the 20th century, the parks superintendent in Leeds started a scrapbook to chronicle the splendour of the city’s open spaces. Among the photos is a selection taken on a warm Whit Bank Holiday at Roundhay Park in 1944.

They are startling. Despite World War II reaching its climax after years of hardship and rationing, the people caught on camera seem to have found happy respite from the harsh realities of life.

With children frolicking in the water, local cricket teams out on the green and couples lounging on the grass, the park was fulfilling the purpose envisaged by its Victorian founders: a green retreat, set apart from the surrounding city – a place of recreation free from the demands of productive activity or commerce.

A romantic prospect: Waterloo Lake at Roundhay Park, Leeds, 1944. Image: Leeds Parks and Countryside/author provided.

Victorian municipal authorities had hoped that parks would be the “lungs” of heavily industrialised cities – green spaces where people, rich and poor, could mix. In other words, the Victorians had a clear sense that parks provided advantages which other urban spaces such as public squares, office blocks, shops, factories and markets did not.

Fast forward to the present day, and parks still provide a refuge from the daily pressures of urban living. Indeed, studies have proved that visiting parks can reduce stress, promote physical activity and forge stronger relationships within communities.

Crisis mode

Yet today, the Victorian confidence that ever greater numbers of parks would be acquired for public use has dissipated. Earlier this year, MPs on the Communities and Local Government select committee said that Britain’s 27,000 urbans parks are at a “tipping point”. If action is not taken, parks are in danger of falling into a spiral of decline.

Without adequate baseline funding, the steady decay, closure or sale of parks are all firm possibilities. Local authority funding restraints are already limiting what park managers can do to exploit the health, social and educational benefits of parks.

One-third of park managers interviewed for the Heritage Lottery Fund’s 2016 report on the state of public parks said that their budgets had been cut more than 20 per cent over the preceding three years. And just over half of the park managers surveyed reported that their parks were in good condition – down 8 percentage points from 2013. A third of the respondents were gloomy when they looked ahead, saying they believed the condition of their park would decline in the future.

A bygone era? The open air bathing pool at Roundhay Park, 1944. Image: Leeds Parks and Countryside/author provided.

Researchers at the University of Leeds’ Social Sciences Institute undertook a project on the future prospects of urban public parks in the city of Leeds, to consider the development of parks since their foundation in the Victorian era, as well as their prospects for the future.

As part of the project, they interviewed just under 6,500 members of the public. Nine out of ten respondents said they had made at least one visit to a Leeds park in the preceding year. On the whole, people still saw the parks as the “green lungs of the city”, a “space apart” from the hustle, bustle and congestion of city life.

But people also had concerns about the future of the city’s parks. They feared that the quality of the parks would decline and that green spaces would be encroached upon by, for example, housing or commercial activity. Many were worried that the city council might introduce charges or abandon parks entirely in its efforts to balance the books.


Visions of the future

The research found that the precarious status of parks opens up a space for a range of possible futures – not just in Leeds but across the UK. The parks of tomorrow are likely to be more varied. The research identifies several possible futures, including “magnet parks” – parks which are managed as city-wide public assets where major events are held, providing cash injections for local authorities.

Alternatively, “club parks” could be funded through a local levy or tax, or maintained and used by local residents. There could even be “theme parks”, where various forms of commercial entertainment and leisure help to generate income for the park.

The recommendations from the research include the need for local and central government to have a statutory duty to safeguard parks, to ensure that they are accountable to the public over the future of parks, and to guarantee basic standards of upkeep. The research also suggests that a great deal could be achieved by creating a national agency to provide leadership and co-ordination across the sector.

The ConversationWith the squeeze on spending set to continue, it seems inevitable that parks will have to change and adapt. Whatever happens next, it’s crucial that the public are involved in a debate about the purpose of urban parks and are able to express their preferences about these new visions for the parks of the future. With these steps, we can develop the kinds of parks that the Leeds park superintendent would have been proud to see in his scrapbook.

Anna Barker is a lecturer in criminal justice at the University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.


At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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