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What’s missing in the parks debate?

Mark Walton

The late arrival of summer has been perfectly timed for Love Parks Week, bringing many of us out into our local green spaces and demonstrating the wide range of pleasure and purpose they fulfil in our lives.

However despite the sunshine, these are turbulent times for local authorities. Parks and public open spaces, facing budget cuts of 50-100%, are one of the services that face an uncertain future.

In a previous blog post we reviewed the array of programmes that have been supporting the development of new models of parks management. Here we want to explore these issues further in the context of our UnThinkingLand series which is considering how we can make collective decisions about what we want from land, and how we can collaborate to implement them.

Photo by Fritz Bielmeier
#Parks have developed hand in hand with the growth of our cities - to lose them seems unthinkable.

If local authorities are no longer able or willing to pay for the management of parks and open spaces then new models will surely be required. Parks have developed hand in hand with the growth of our cities, mitigating some of the negative impacts of urbanisation. They are essential to the physical, social and commercial fabric of the city, part of the warp through which its other functions weave. To lose them, or to see them decline again as they did in the 1970s, seems unthinkable.

There is no obvious silver bullet for addressing the immediate crisis. Instead we are seeing the development of a number of strategies and approaches that may form components of the future management of our parks. However none will be sufficient on its own, and in each has its risks and dangers. They include:

  1. Reducing costs by increasing volunteerism. Whilst some groups are happy to do more, there will be limits to the levels of responsibility they are able or willing to take. It will require sustained investment in capacity building and partnership working. Ongoing community development and engagement will also be needed to engage with young people, minority communities, and those who may not otherwise always feel welcome or included in current groups or activities.
  2. Increasing income through leases, concessions, and pay-to-play activities can exclude those on low incomes from full participation and risks commercialising some our last remaining truly free and democratic spaces.
  3. New partnerships widen the range of stakeholders involved in the management and maintenance of public spaces, bringing new thinking and new resources. However without clear and transparent governance arrangements there is a risk that more powerful partners will trump the interests of others.
  4. New organisational arrangements such as charitable trusts bring new opportunities for accessing funding and ensure that assets will be managed to deliver pubic benefit. However they do not have the democratic accountability of an elected public body and risk being managed ‘for’ the public rather than ‘by’ the public, devaluing the importance and value of public realm.

We should not necessarily fear the change from local authorities having sole responsibility for parks and public spaces. Historically parks have been both private and public, or have been developed in partnership, born out of the widespread recognition that urban green space helps to ensure the health and wellbeing of the population, and enables them to congregate for recreational, social and political purposes. Often these very public spaces were paid for by private development and maintained by subscription.

However we do need a wider conversation regarding the purpose of public parks and how they can be maintained for the future. And not just about who pays but also who manages, who makes decisions, and how are they held accountable? What kinds of democracy – participative or representative – do we need?

We need to talk about the purpose of public #parks and how they can be maintained for the future.

In these shifting sands what should be the ongoing role of local authorities? Should they retain a role as the landowner, or as the convener, arbitrator and protector of the public interest in these new arrangements? Or are their powers so diminished, their resources so depleted, and their capacity so undermined, that they are not even able to undertake these important functions.

If the future lies in the establishment of charitable parks trusts, are benign but undemocratic organisations with clear public interest objectives the best we can hope for?

Freddie Marriage, CC Licence

Given this context we welcome the forthcoming Public Parks Inquiry, recently announced by the Communities and Local Government Committee, as part of that wider debate and we will be developing a response of the coming weeks. However we are also convinced of the need for much wider engagement at the local level, that moves beyond considering options for business models and legal structures, and considers the multiple roles that parks and green spaces play in our lives, our relationships to them and to each other, and how we can ensure they continue to be managed in ways that work for everyone.

So far in this UnThinkingLand series we have mainly been raising questions regarding our current approaches to the management and ownership of land. In our next post we’ll be ‘thinking in public’ about the potential for bringing together elements of systems thinking, group dynamics, social enterprise and commons governance to create new models that enable us to make collective decisions about what we want from land, and to collaborate to implement them.

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