GoParks.London: A treasure trove of healing emerald and golden gems

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Autumnal colours and piles of leaves are starting to dominate London’s parks and green spaces as the season slides out of summer, oblivious of the changes the world has had to make through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Autumn leaves © Tim Webb
Autumn leaves © Tim Webb

Parks became and remain a constant. Fields or spaces of tranquillity and near normality. One of the few places where you can imagine nothing has changed. Look closer though and you should notice that there are no groups with more than six people.

a woman skipping in a park with other park users sitting on a bench and walking © Tim Webb
Skipping © Tim Webb

GoParks.London has more than 4,000 parks and green spaces featured on its interactive map and we know there are others out there not yet registered (if you know of one please help us out by registering it). Every one of the 4,000 entries have their own page detailing the facilities with some history and notes on the nature you might find when visiting. There are also details on the management and contacts for any volunteer groups.

It’s no secret that a trip outdoors, even a gentle walk, is good for your health, the medical evidence is compelling. Spending time in parks, woodland or green spaces boosts our physical and mental wellbeing. Some Doctors even prescribe walks in gardens to reduce depression, anxiety and fatigue. They are now adding obesity, diabetes, coronary disease and stroke to the list of ailments that regular trips to the park can help address.

One lesson we have learned during this pandemic is that we need more green space in London and better funding to maintain and improve our existing ones. It is not just a London issue, the total proportion of urban greenspace in England declined by 8% between 2001 and 2018, from 63% to 55%.

When it comes to the issue of access to green space, London is in a league of its own. The Office for National Statistics [ONS] claims about one in five households in the capital don’t have access to a private garden and even where they do, garden sizes are smaller than the national average. In London, the median garden size is 140m2 compared with 188m2 across the rest of Great Britain. The ONS went on to say, “the average park in Great Britain serves just under 2,000 people, although some parks in densely populated areas cater for many more. Around 46,000 people have Clapham Common as their nearest park, more than 20 times the average.”

2 people playing table tennis in a park © Tim Webb
Table tennis © Tim Webb

In May 2020, Fields in Trust released the latest version of their Green Space Index [GSI], which is a measurement of the amount of green and play spaces available per 1000 people across Great Britain. A GSI of 1 means there is adequate provision. London came bottom of the table of eleven regions with a GSI of 0.55. Scotland came top with a GSI of 1.26. Fleshing that out a bit, Scotland has 43.48 square metres of parks and play space per person. In comparison, London has less than half of that with just 18.96 square metres per person.

Parks are a social asset, an important part of our national infrastructure. We should treasure and value them for all they give us. Lockdown in London was tough but bearable over the summer months thanks to our parks. Councils and support groups did all they could to keep those parks open while simultaneously looking after vulnerable members of our communities, leaving local authorities out of pocket. More central government money is needed just to keep the current provision going, let alone improving them and providing more green spaces and play areas.

Pre-Covid parks saw dog-walkers, runners and weekend sports clubs dominate the list of visitors. Now it’s teens, twenty-somethings, sporty people, families on walks or picnics, business-like execs taking a screen break between Zoom calls, or sometimes making Zoom calls from parks, and lots more people escaping the confines of home.

Covid-19 has already changed parks and how we use them. The long-term impact is not yet known as society is still trying to find ways to live with the virus. There have been three recent reports from landlords, estate agents and the GLA all claiming people of all ages are moving out of London. Numbers of increased enquiries for suburban or rural homes suggest the capital could lose anything from a quarter to a third of its population! Having realised they can shake free the anchor of their office desks to work remotely, people believe there is a better world outside London. They want access to more green space, gardens or bigger homes. Many cite the commute, polluted air and overcrowded spaces as considerations.

Abney Park Cemetery showing grave stones © Tim Webb
Abney Park Cemetery © Tim Webb

Future historians will look back at this pandemic as the catalyst that changed the way we live and plan our cities. I’m optimistic that parks will continue to play a central role in our lives and be fully recognised for their contribution to our health and wellbeing, community resilience and the various “eco-system services” they provide like cleaner air and water, flood protection, oxygen, carbon storage, biodiversity support and more.

What if future cities were perceived as nurture reserves? Places where people, creativity and communities came together to work and play in smart parks, full of inspirational wildflowers, art and cultural activities. Places where it was safe and easy to get around on foot, bike, scooter or clean energy vehicles. Locations where you can sit in quiet contemplation or meet in shared spaces to explore new opportunities for jobs and zero-carbon industries and enjoy international cuisine using ingredients grown nearby.

This change comes with a heavy bill of almost 42,000 Covid deaths recorded so far. We cannot go back to how things were before the pandemic. Future London and the UK must be greener, healthier and wilder for all. GoParks.London has a wealth of features on London’s parks and the people working to improve green spaces, alongside articles on the latest research and initiatives. It feels as though Parks would be a suitable place to remember all those we have lost and those we will lose to the coronavirus pandemic.

GoParks.London is a partnership project funded by City Bridge Trust and the Mayor of London. Partners include: CPRE London, Greenspace information for Greater London (GiGL), London Friends of Greenspaces Network (LFGN), Revolution Consultancy and Design, London National Park City and the London Parks and Gardens Trust.

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