Green spaces need Friends!
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How can land managers embrace and work with Friends Groups and community volunteers?
Local green spaces have always been popular and are recognised as a fundamental ingredient necessary for communities to thrive, above all - they bring people together.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted their importance still further and parks and open spaces continue to help us cope with lockdowns and restrictions. The last twelve months have brought a welcome spotlight of appreciation onto our green spaces. Report after report has been published highlighting just what a vital resource they are. Many more local people have discovered the ‘green lungs’ on their doorsteps and are willing to volunteer their time to look after them.
Managers and Councils are embracing the help green space volunteers can bring. Likewise, most Friends Groups are keen to support - rather than be used to supplant - the hard-working and under-resourced workers and rangers whose job it is to somehow make sure our public green spaces are properly managed and maintained. We must be partners, and work closely together.
Parks Community UK was set up by and for Friends Groups activists to enable and help support communities to play a more active role in looking after their green spaces. It is the grassroots service arm of the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, the umbrella network for the 7,000 local Friends groups throughout the UK.
We invite you to take a look and share links to our website. It is designed to help Friends of Parks, greenspace user groups, landowners, council officers and parks’ staff as an evolving resource filled with peer learning, inspiring case studies and links to current thinking. We want best practice to be available to all. We aim to offer support, share experiences, information and ideas and we believe partnership working and empowering local people to be effective is the best way to ensure our parks can survive, adapt and thrive. To spread the word we use social media, newsletters and by utilising NFPGS networks.
Volunteering is on the rise
During 2020 the most popular pages on our website were “How to set up a Friends Group” and practical advice on “Running a Group”. A clear sign the appetite is there from local people to devote time to help a cherished green space. Friends Groups come in all shapes and sizes; they look after community gardens, allotments, churchyards, ponds, woods, rivers, country parks, playing fields, orchards, parks - and plenty in between!
Greenspace Friends, community and user groups have been growing in influence and numbers over the last twenty years and now help out in over a quarter of our green spaces. The target should be to encourage and support local people to set up groups, enabling communities to help and be involved with every single one of our parks and green spaces.
Local people realise these spaces need to be protected and looked after and that the task is becoming harder for staff working with ever-decreasing budgets.
This new-found recognition brings opportunities. #BuildBackBetter became a trending hashtag for most of 2020 and there is a strong feeling we should “use the momentum of recovery to reimagine all of our city’s spaces for a greener, healthier, and more resilient future.” (London Green Spaces Commission Report, August 2020)
Working with and utilising the considerable extra resource, enthusiasm, knowledge and capacity local green volunteers offer must be a priority for any Council or land manager over the coming years. Not only can they make an immediate practical difference to a site, but also bring more nuanced benefits - such as strengthening ties to the community, broadening support networks and helping to break down social inequalities.
What benefits do Friends and Community green space volunteers bring?
The Heritage Lottery Fund 2016 State of UK Public Parks Research Report (pp62-66) set out a range of key statistics regarding Friends Groups in the UK. It showed a fast-growing movement (compared to the HLF 2013 Report figures) of groups (around 5900) with increasing membership (650,000). The volunteering hours were calculated to have contributed £70m, plus an extra £50m in direct fundraising. With roughly 7000 groups now operating in 2020, we expect these figures are now significantly higher and will continue to rise.
Successful volunteer groups in parks encourage community ownership and increase the number of visitors, they can identify and nurture future community leaders and bring in much-needed funding.
Volunteering efforts can include producing flyers, social media publicity and running noticeboards; planting flowers and trees, and maintaining landscape features; organising walks, talks, and events of all kinds; doing wildlife surveys and conducting public consultations; helping manage buildings; collecting litter, reporting maintenance issues and liaising with staff and management; developing ideas for improvement, and fundraising for projects; lobbying and campaigning for resources and against inappropriate development; being part of decision-making; and much much more!
Case Study Lordship Rec, Haringey, London - “Community-led regeneration and co-management of a major urban park”
Case Study Fruit and Nut Village, Stirchley, Birmingham "Creating a network of community orchards and forest gardens”
How to encourage a Friends or community group at your green space or park?
Not only are there already thousands of thriving local Friends groups acting as positive examples, but we have amassed a wealth of Case Studies and How To guides to inspire and inform the development of new groups.
We particularly recommend the following How To guides which flag up the useful building blocks for a successful group: Let’s be Friends / Sample Constitution / Making our groups stronger and more diverse / Improve relationships with user groups who share your green space / Partnership working between Friends Groups and Landowners and Managers
- Show you care - many Friends Forums and Local Authorities create downloadable toolkits for would-be greenspace volunteers, which contain advice on starting a Friends or community group.
A terrific example has been produced by Bromley Park Friends which “includes details of the borough’s commitment to its Parks and Green Spaces and the roles and responsibilities of the Council, its main contractor idverde and the Friends Group” along with guides on the practicalities of starting a group, data protection, health and safety guidelines and much more.
Does the landowner or Council have group insurance which will cover volunteer activities? Let groups know; it will save them money and help them feel protected and valued.
- Connect - make sure the opportunities to volunteer at your site are well promoted. Recruits can come from many sources such as neighbours and regular park users, church groups, local businesses, places of education, existing community and sports groups and societies that specialise in conservation, gardening, ecology and wildlife. Use posters and one-off events to promote the opportunity to set up or join a Friends Group and showcase what your green site offers.
- Strength in depth - greenspace friends’ and community groups usually find it very useful to be in contact with other similar groups in their area – to share ideas, news and experiences and raise the profile of activities and common aims. That’s why we support the formation of Friends Forums. With support and representation from area parks teams and Local Authorities, it allows effective partnerships to develop and provides a regular platform to meet. There’s advice on our website: “How to set up a Friends Forum”.
- Helping Hand - perhaps an established Friends Group may have the capacity to mentor a new group? Simply having a name and email address or phone number of an experienced fellow local volunteer could make all the difference. Connect them up!
- Share resources - this could be practical support like borrowing tools but also sharing knowledge - how to run an activity, plant an orchard, using a Council platform to promote an event. Point groups to the PCUK resource.
- Define all roles - make it clear what support Friends Groups can expect and what tasks or help the site requires. Explain the roles of the parks team and associated chains of command. This can go a long way to avoid disappointment or misunderstandings. If one member of the parks team has to cover the whole area and respond to enquiries, what will be classed as a priority? Which communication method is preferred? Having a clear set of aims and meeting regularly means time gets used effectively. Share relevant information, for example, Council targets for the year, planned events etc. Most of all, develop long term relationships based on honesty, transparency and mutual respect.
- Have a plan - This could involve Friends and parks staff feeding into a detailed Management Plan. Deciding to go for a Green Flag can bring cohesive aims with achievable deadlines. Some groups prefer something easier to grasp, such as a map which marks out zones, responsibilities and targets or a written Vision document which contains shared aims agreed between volunteers and parks staff.
Case Study - Management Plan Friends of Troopers Hill & Bristol Parks
How to keep volunteers happy
There are of course many reasons why people volunteer and it is important to value every individual. But it is also vital to value and recognise what it takes to create and sustain a community group. Don’t forget to celebrate the group’s efforts!
Community groups and staff, co-operating and working together, can achieve great things for their much loved local spaces.
At the start of each year, meet up and decide on achievable goals.
Communicate clearly and ensure both parties know what is expected of them.
Make the volunteer experience safe and well organised.
Offer flexible tasks that ensure even those with only a few hours to spare can take part and stay happy.
Make sure the volunteers know they are making a difference, feedback all positive impact using data if you can.
Keep group members in the loop by communicating important news and updates.
A final word
From Wayne Priestley, Principal Advisor at APSE (Association for Public Service Excellence) in the Local Government Association/HLF case studies on Parks Services report, published in Nov 2020:
“A lot of the Friends’ Groups actually generate a lot of income either through putting events on, applying for grants, or they bring in money in themselves,” he told LGC. “They are crucial in helping local authorities maintain the quality and standards in parks and to link into the community as well. You lose that link, you've got real problems.” (source)