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.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.