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The Urban Park – a home away from home

The chief executive of the independent charity Fields in Trust, Helen Griffiths writes for New Start on why parks and green spaces can be a ‘home away from home’ for local communities.

Parks and green spaces in our towns and cities provide valuable shared community spaces for informal community connections. The Government’s recently published 25-year environment plan recognises the need to focus on green space and particularly references disadvantaged areas – understanding that connecting people with the natural environment will improve health and wellbeing.

Our recent research, ‘Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces’, measured the economic and wellbeing value to individuals who frequently use local parks. Results show an annual value of £34.2 billion to the UK population (the equivalent of £974 per individual), based on measurements of life satisfaction including physical and mental health benefits. Further analysis of our data estimates an annual cost saving to the NHS worth £111 million, focusing only on one aspect of health (the fact that parks users are less likely to visit their GP).

We also believe there are additional social benefit to communities that flow from having free access to well-maintained public parks and green spaces.

Our primary research survey of 4000 adults identified parks and green spaces as an essential and valued part of the fabric of our urban neighbourhoods. Parks are used as an extension of the home or the ‘home away from home’  A higher proportion of urban residents use their parks and green spaces to meet friends, picnic and for personal sport and relaxation compared to rural residents. A greater number of rural residents identified organised team sports as a reason for visiting parks. Both urban and rural groups are using parks in a way that brings them into contact with others – forming and enhancing social bonds.

Our research used a HM Treasury approved methodology to establish a total economic value of value for parks and green spaces. We also have a set of welfare weighted ‘Willingness to Pay’ values, equivalised by income, which can be used to compare the welfare benefits that parks and green spaces provide to different groups in society.  One of the most significant findings is the clear demonstration that lower socio-economic groups and black Asian and minority ethnic communities ascribe a much higher value (£51.84 and £70.08 respectively) to parks and green spaces than the national average (£30.24 per year).

Importantly, our research shows that while there are different drivers for using parks and green spaces across different user group there are also clear, shared social motivations for use enforcing the position that parks and green spaces improve community cohesion by offering shared spaces for community connections.

Parks offer a ‘third space’ – the term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his book “The Great Good Place” to describe places of civic engagement separate from the domesticity of home or the functional workplace. Shared activities through culture and sport bring communities together and the public arena of parks and green spaces are sites of informal self-organised activities as well as more formal activity. For example, at Fields in Trust we support hundreds of Friends of Park groups and volunteers across the UK to deliver our annual campaign ‘Have a FieldDay’ celebrating parks and green spaces. On Saturday 7th July we will see hundreds ofcommunities gathered for picnics and community events in local parks across the UK.

Interventions such as The Big Lunch, and the Jo Cox Foundation’s Big Get Together aim to tackle social isolation and develop bridging social capital. Projects like GoodGym and parkrun use parks and public spaces to connect people from different backgrounds to undertake an activity collectively.  Additionally, very small-scale changes can have a big impact, installing picnic benches alongside a children’s playground encourages parents to stay longer – to meet and spend time with others in similar circumstances. For these projects to be successful accessible well-maintained parks and green spaces are a requisite.

Ensuring that there is equitable provision of accessible parks and green space has been a key priority for Fields in Trust since the 1930s. Guidance for Outdoor Sport and Play (originally published as the Six Acre Standard) is both respected and valued across the sector with 73% of Local Planning Authorities using this guidance or an equivalent level of provision according to our 2014 survey. Given the challenging financial position of local authorities, the possibility of exploring new models of ownership and management of parks and green spaces is being discussed at national level. Many rely, to some extent, on volunteers to support alternative management models. According to government data sets Taking Part, Understanding Society and Community Life, BAME communities and lower socio-economic groups are respectively 9% and 11% less likely to volunteer than the national average.

There is a real risk therefore that inequity in provision of good quality green space could be exacerbated in areas with high levels of BAME communities and lower socio-economic groups, despite these groups assigning a higher relative value than the national average. A reduction in service where arguably it is needed most.

It is vital that financial decisions about parks and green spaces are not seen in isolation for example as a maintenance cost or the one-off income from sale of a capital asset, but rather seen as integral to cross-cutting policy agendas and therefore worth investing in and protecting.

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

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