The UK’s new parks innovators
By Lydia Ragoonanan, Rethinking Parks programme manager
Public Parks are a great British invention. At the forefront of public innovation in Victorian times, parks were created to improve wellbeing and reduce the negative impacts of living in increasingly dense urban environments. They were adored and the blue print for these green lungs was adopted by cities the world over, from San Francisco to Sydney to Sao Paulo.
Less well known is that another wave of innovation is beginning to take hold across UK public parks. The Rethinking Parks programme is supporting 11 visionary teams to develop new ways to manage, fund and use our public parks. Nesta, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and the Big Lottery Fund have come together with a £1 million fund to test, support and share new business models that could help sustain public parks for the next century. For many reasons, it’s time to rethink the traditional way we fund and manage parks.
The push factor for Rethinking Parks is the squeeze on the public purse. Severe pressure on local authority finances mean non-statutory services, such as public parks, face unprecedented levels of budget cuts. There are clear and present threats to service delivery and provision, with only 19 per cent of local authorities reporting that efficiency improvements will be enough on their own to deal with the challenge. The potential impacts for parks are even starker, with HLF’s State of UK Parks research telling us that 45 per cent of authorities considering selling or privatising public parks to manage cuts.
At the same time we know new approaches are reinventing how public services are designed and delivered in other fields, and could offer opportunities for public parks beyond cost savings or income generation. People who benefit from services are getting involved in the design of them. New technologies are enabling us to manage assets and infrastructure, as well as understand people’s experience of them, in real time. A variety of mechanisms unheard of ten years ago are now enabling organisations unable to access traditional finance, to raise funds or engage new audiences.
It’s in this environment that Rethinking Parks has been created. The programme’s purpose is to test new ways to manage, fund and operate public parks. We hope that by supporting a small number of trail blazers, we can get a better understanding of what alternatives to the traditional local authority model may work.
Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation, brings skills and experience in public sector innovation, and in linking experimentation with evidence of impact. Our partners, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Big Lottery Fund have expertise and a strong tradition of supporting the parks sectors. Together we all believe we need to support new ideas, because the status quo will not be enough to sustain our parks. We also believe that it’s only through documenting and sharing the models tested that we can share the learning and approaches with a much wider network.
The teams and ideas we are supporting are diverse. The Thames Chase Trust is working with Barking and Dagenham at Eastbrookend Country Park to reimagine an underused building into a community hub, generating income and increasing footfall across the park. Greenspace Scotland is working across both Edinburgh and Glasgow to improve the public’s connection with their local parks, and their propensity to give. Newground, Offshoots and Burnley Council are working together to bring back the British black bee, generating revenue from pollinating services and high-end honey, and developing beautiful wild flower meadows across Towneley Park in the process. These are but three projects being supported, and the teams are as diverse as their geography.
The common theme across all the teams is their willingness to take risks. None of them has an instruction manual for developing and implementing their idea within the UK context. All are investing professional and personal time in bringing their ideas to life. All hold close a vision of what could be possible without knowing if it is probable.
If there are common bonds that bind our teams together, then there are also common challenges. There’s the desire to refine an idea into polished perfection ahead of sharing it. Yet, we know that early feedback and insights can reduce cost and work. So we are supporting our teams to engage in market testing early, and as their ideas are rolled out.
The second challenge is knowing where to start. Think big, but start small. The beauty of starting small is it enables you to get something off the ground – to translate a thought into something tangible – delivering a sense of achievement but also being able to get further feedback on the impact of your idea.
This leads me to the third challenge we are currently exploring through Rethinking Parks; measuring impact. Gathering good, timely data means we can not only understand what impact we are having, but also revise what’s not working and build on what is.
It’s still early days in the Rethinking Parks programme and it will be some time before we have a sense about the potential for these ideas to be self-sustaining, replicated or taken to scale. Even early on though, it’s clear that the secret to effective change is not about lamenting the past, but is instead about focussing on the opportunities that lie ahead of us.