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.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.