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A microcosm of the future for urban parks?

Kate Swade

How can green space management best respond to huge budget cuts? We’ve been working with the London Borough of Lambeth, the Friends of Larkhall Park, and our colleagues at Locality, to help answer this question for Larkhall Park in Stockwell.

Larkhall Park is a medium size (5ha) park in an area of high deprivation and low access to green space, in the centre of the London Borough of Lambeth. Lambeth is proud of its status as a “co-operative council”, and has accessed funding from central government (under the Delivering Differently in Neighbourhoods programme) to support a number of “pioneer parks” as they explore what community-led management of their local green spaces might look like. This has been precipitated by a steep cut (50%) in the budget available for parks management and maintenance in Lambeth.

Our approach to this work is in two main stages: firstly, this involves information gathering, a review, and the generation of options, and secondly the development of one or more of those options into business models or implementation plans. We have just reached the end of stage one, and it seems to us that the future of this park raises many questions which might be pertinent to other medium sized urban parks across the country.

We’ve scrutinised all the existing documentation and budgets – one key finding, which is common in many places, is that it is very hard to disaggregate costs for one park from an entire budget or contract. We have also carried out a detailed condition survey and interviewed key local stakeholders. Larkhall Park is relatively small but has many different components: from sports facilities and a one o’clock club to a cafe. However, it soon became apparent that there is very little coordination between these different elements.  For the park to become really great it will need to become more than the sum of its parts, but this will take substantial work.

We’ve worked closely with the Friends Group, which has helped us understand their motivations, aspirations and capacity, and has also allowed us to see the park through the eyes of people who really know it. We also pulled together a panel of experts in community led management of green space and held a workshop with them and some of the Friends in order to develop a set of criteria for the success of the park, as well as some options for achieving those criteria.

The council is now reviewing its approach to parks management, so there are many moving parts at the moment. We’re going to develop two plans over the next couple of months. One will involve co-ordinating with other local stakeholders, and seeing the Friends group taking the lead in animating the park: running events, engaging more volunteers, and actively holding the council to account for the management of the park. The other plan will be for the scenario of full community-led management of the park. We will create a model which will allow both the council and the Friends to understand what might be possible, as well as the contingencies and dependencies in any new management arrangements. Throughout this process, we’ll be working with the Friends to help build their capacity and their links with other local groups.

Parks are important in so many ways – providing space for public gatherings, for active recreation, for contemplation, and for exercise (both of humans and dogs). In many ways, Larkhall is a typical urban park, and so the lessons from this work may well be quite widely applicable. We’ve just found out that we will be working with the Friends of Slade Gardens (further east in Stockwell) as they embark on a similar journey, and will be looking forward to further understanding the similarities and differences between these two parks.

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