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In Practice: protecting parks from increased commercialism

Helen Griffiths is chief executive of Fields in Trust, an independent charity which legally protects parks and green spaces. Writing for NewStart, she discusses what more can be done to protect city parks from increased commercialisation during the summer festival season.

During a long, hot summer in the city, walking in one of London’s many parks might provide a relaxing respite, yet as urban geographer Dr Andrew Smith from the University of Westminster has reported, there is growing concern about the commercialisation and privatisation of the capital’s civic spaces which are inaccessible whilst fee-paying events are underway.

Dr Smith has studied the community response to the use of London’s parks and green spaces for festivals, gigs and events. There were ten multi-day festivals in London Parks this summer restricting access to ticket holders only – something he suggests highlights “a wider ideological concern about privatisation.”

Fields in Trust champions and supports our parks and green spaces by protecting them for people to enjoy in perpetuity. We legally protect 2,735 spaces across the UK of which around 150 are in London. Management and maintenance of these sites remain with the landowner – usually the local council. We want to see parks used as much as possible and community events are a great way to connect people and catalyse community spirit. The UK government’s new Civil Society strategy identifies how shared community spaces are providing valuable opportunities for social mixing, tackling loneliness and improving health outcomes. Our annual Have a Field Day community events are a good example of this.

However, local authorities are under increasing pressure to continue funding parks and green spaces and commercial events are a way of generating income to support these valuable assets. Provided ongoing use of the site isn’t adversely affected, most events across the UK are perfectly acceptable to regular users and friends’ groups. Unlike London, most commercial festivals around the UK are conducted on privately owned land. The capital city simply does not have alternate spaces for major public events, so Finsbury Park, Blackheath, Battersea Park and others have been used extensively; resulting in local communities raising concerns over the frequency and extent of commercial use.

We know from our recent research that the benefits parks and green spaces provide are valued differently by different groups. For example, we found that people from urban areas hold a higher relative value for their local parks and green spaces than rural residents. In fact, London residents ascribe a value over 20% more than the national average of £39.48 per year. In other words, urban residents benefit more from the welfare improvements associated with the use and continued existence of parks and green spaces. Across the UK the total wellbeing value associated with the frequent use of parks and green spaces is worth £34.2Billon per year.

To help explain the higher relative values of parks and green spaces to urban residents we explored motivations for using these spaces.  Londoners – and urban dwellers more generally – use parks and green spaces differently from their rural counterparts. Urban residents see their local parks and green spaces as a “home away from home” to meet friends (12%, compared to 8% of rural respondents) and picnic (17%, compared to 11% of rural respondents), and for personal sport (12%) and relaxation (33%), compared to rural residents (9% and 22% respectively).

Parks are part of the city fabric – a higher proportion of urban residents use their parks as a shortcut (18%) or to pass the time (30%), compared to those living in rural locations (14% and 23% respectively) which shows parks and green spaces as a day-to-day component of the urban space. In contrast, rural parks and green spaces provide a more limited and functional set of activities – children’s activities, team sports, and dog-walking.

This suggests that rural parks serve a specific purpose but in urban settings they are much more integrated and fundamental to everyday life. Yet for the duration of events, London parks are partially unavailable for public use – not just for the period of a festival, but also for the set-up and taking down phases. Physical and environmental damage can follow- with trucks and cranes operating on open parkland disrupting the grass surfaces, taking a space out of commission and incurring costs to repair.

Regardless of location, it is with no doubt that parks and green spaces offer shared spaces for community connections.

Our research also shows that a higher proportion of park and green spaces users are part of a family. There are very few entertainment options for families which are free to visit, and families who are regular park visitors will often avoid spaces whilst events are in process. Even carnivals or community events that are free to attend will have food and drink for sale and fairground rides are often prohibitively expensive.

Whilst income from events may generate a surplus to support a local authority’s green space provision – a reliance on revenue from festivals could quickly disappear. Events that simply fail to attract headline acts or generate sufficient ticket sales can be cancelled at short notice resulting in a funding gap for the council from the very activity that was intended to generate income to support parks provision.

There are several other considerations – not only availability of space but the quality of the experience when visiting parks and green spaces. Increased litter because of reduced maintenance can make parks less attractive to visitors and recent work by CPRE London reports on the tranquillity of London’s parks – few are removed from traffic noise completely and when fairgrounds and festivals take over part of a park – that which remains is less attractive for relaxation, play and recreation.

It requires a fine balance to ensure public access to public spaces is guaranteed whilst running events. Using the asset itself to generate income for maintenance is an attractive option for local authorities, but in the process, it is vital that one of the functions of parks and green spaces – providing health and wellbeing benefits to regular users – is not lost.

  • Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces Download Fields in Trust’s full research report or a summary of findings fieldsintrust/research

 

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