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People need Parks

Logo: Rugby Borough Council
Caldecott Park in Rugby still blooming in lockdown. Credit Rugby Borough Council
Caldecott Park in Rugby still blooming in lockdown. Credit Rugby Borough Council

“People need Parks” were the words of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government at the Downing Street daily coronavirus briefing. Never before have our nation’s, indeed the world’s, parks been in such focus. Whilst to some the decision to keep them open during the pandemic has sparked questions, to others they have been a lifeline.

Ministers and even the Prime Minister have been talking about the important role parks and green spaces play in our nation’s health and wellbeing.

Painted floor markings. Credit Rugby Borough Council
Painted floor markings. Credit Rugby Borough Council

Ironic that nearly 150 years after the Public Health act that provided the impetus for local authorities to build public parks, at a time of global health emergency the people need parks. Our Victorian forbearers would be shouting “we told you so”, and “what have you done”. Where did we go wrong, and more importantly what can we do to ensure our parks and green spaces fulfil the needs of both the community and the planet and we don’t forget the experience we have just lived through.

We owe it to the tens of thousands of people that have sadly died and the many thousands more in the NHS and key services that have pulled us through this to bring a legacy of change and improvement to our nations green spaces. A legacy where we value things that matter, that provide a sense of community and place, and where the wider public benefit is acknowledged, and not on how much it costs to cut the grass.

Covid-19 has not only brought challenges to the sector, but has focused a lot of attention on how people engage with their local green space. Some people have rediscovered spaces on their doorstep that they haven’t visited in years, whilst others struggle not to sit on the grass and enjoy the sunshine.

This has been most evident in those communities across the UK where residents live in high rise flats, apartments and terraced houses with no gardens. Sometimes located in our most disadvantaged communities, the need to access quality green space for mental and physical wellbeing is vital, albeit whilst abiding by social distancing. It has also seen our communities reasserting their ownership of these spaces with colourful chalk pictures, creating rainbows similar to those seen in people’s windows. These are in contrast to the painted social distancing warning that have had to be installed to remind users of the restrictions in movement.

Recent surveys by the Association of Public Service Excellence (APSE), Greenspace Scotland and the Midlands Parks Form (MPF) all put the compliance with social distancing at around 90%. Whilst there were some high profile media cases where parks had to close the majority have stayed open for people’s daily allowed visit for exercise. Indeed the scientific advice is that “you are much less likely to touch an infected surface and suspended particles will be massively diluted in the fresh air”.

This is a challenging time for those who care for these places, issues have included:

Gardeners redeployed to supporting our most vulnerable communities. Credit Rugby Borough Council
Gardeners redeployed to supporting our most vulnerable communities. Credit Rugby Borough Council

The redeployment of parks and grounds maintenance staff to support the statutory services such as waste collection and supporting vulnerable residents. The MPF research suggest 65.2 of staff have or were about to be redeployed. The result of this alone will require a herculean effort to try to catch up as some green spaces will have seen no maintenance for months. On the flip side with only undertaking very skeleton maintenance some areas have seen an increase in longer grass and along with it, significant biodiversity benefits.

Introducing social distancing polices resulting in changes to work patterns and schedules.

The cancellation of events and volunteering opportunities.

The massive loss of income from already cash strapped parks services. Parks budgets have been reduced on average by 32% over the past few years and income generation and commercialization have become key buzz words. Now with no cafes, no sport, no events, no car parking and no income they face an even greater funding crisis than before.

All play areas and outdoor sports facilities have been closed. Credit Rugby Borough Council
All play areas and outdoor sports facilities have been closed. Credit Rugby Borough Council

So where are we now?

I have long argued that parks are an essential part of the fabric of all our communities. Whether for health and wellbeing, exercise, relaxation, places to volunteer and socialise, for children to play, encountering nature or just providing a place to gather your thoughts. That’s without even touching on all the climate emergency, environmental and biodiversity benefits too. With 37 million annual visits to our nations parks and green spaces you’d have thought we would have already recognised their importance.

We now face two international emergencies, one regarding the climate and one regarding public health. Both are significant challenges. However adversity can bring opportunity and I believe it’s beyond doubt that our parks and green space can start to address some of the issues if we value them correctly.

We really have to do better.

There will be lessons to be learnt, both nationally and internationally and the need for quality parks and green spaces has never been greater; and neither has our communities’ expectations.

There must now be a step change in thinking on what is essential infrastructure for our communities and residents and both political and financial priority given to secure and maintain our green spaces so as a society, and as a nation, we are more resistant to cope with any future challenges.

Stay safe and be kind.

Chris Worman MBE Parks Practitioner member of the Parks Action Group. chris.worman@rugby.gov.uk

Chris has over 36 years’ experience in the parks industry and is currently Rugby Borough Council’s Parks and Grounds Manager. He has also been a Green Flag Award judge from the start of the awards and over the past 24 years of volunteering has had the opportunity to judge many 100s of parks both around the UK and beyond. He has undertaken a number of international judging tours including Spain, the Middle East, Mexico and America. For his service to the Green Flag Awards and public parks he was awarded an MBE in the Queens 90th Birthday honours in 2016

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