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From graph of doom to full bloom

Source: Public Sector Executive Nov/Dec 2013

Vicki Sellick, director of the Rethinking Parks programme at Nesta, the UK’s Innovation Foundation, discusses the state of England’s public parks.

Barnet’s graph of doom, suggesting all of local government’s money will be taken up meeting social care needs by 2020, has been rather over-used in the last few years. Nonetheless, its terrifying message remains. Public funding for discretionary services like parks is set to fall by 60% in the next decade. Business as usual just can’t go on.

But the reality is that it hasn’t been business as usual for a while now. In fact England’s parks have lost out on £75m of investment since 2010, according to last week’s report from Policy Exchange.  There’s a north-south divide – spending reductions are more than twice as great in the north and the Midlands than in the south – but the cuts are affecting every council, every park.

If we want to maintain green spaces as a centre of community life, then local government will need to think radically about how it pays for, manages and maintains parks. No-one wants a repeat of the spiral of decline in the 80s, which led to some parks and green spaces becoming no-go zones at dusk.

So what will the parks look like with less public funding? And how will parks generate income without selling off land or privatising?

These questions are why we’ve launched Rethinking Parks, a £1m fund from Nesta, the Big Lottery Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, to find and back the best parks innovators.

We’re looking for inspired public servants and council leaders to test new ideas for maintaining parks and generating sustainable income streams to make sure parks thrive in the future.

Thankfully there are a number of pioneers, trying new approaches already. Our recent report, ‘Rethinking Parks: Exploring new business models for parks in the 21st century’, explores 20 case studies from around the world (including those below).

But it’s clear that these examples are not yet the norm. Whilst most parks have a ‘friends of’ group, few have a significant income stream beyond local government funding.

We need to experiment and try new models for generating income for green spaces. Imagine, what if parks hosted more events? Or used their natural resources to capture and sell energy? What if communities took a greater role in maintaining green spaces? Or we grew more food in parks?

Local government has proved time and time again over the century that it can pioneer new models, reinvent itself and its ways of working, to make sure that key community assets like schools, community buildings and parks flourish. We’re confident the 21st century will be no different.

At Nesta we have a long history of backing experimenters and supporting pioneering public servants to innovate.  We’re not just interested in saving parks from decline, but in ideas that ensure parks will grow and thrive well into the 21st century.  It’s clear that we need to innovate if we’re to move the debate on from graph of doom to full bloom.

If your council or leader has an idea – apply for your share of the £1m fund and help us to rethink parks.

Five snapshot case studies

Ealing Council manages Northala Fields Park by offering free rent of the fishing lake in the park in lieu of a local fishing charity taking on the maintenance.

Lambeth Council is experimenting with co-operative parks where citizens can vote on priorities or even take on the maintenance of parks.

New York has established local, community-led, not-for-profit organisations to create and manage new parks like the Brooklyn Bridge Park (pictured above), making the most of income from events, public subscriptions and fundraising.

Sheffield’s Green Estate (below) keeps costs down though a clever mix of land management techniques, from wildflower meadows to the use of traditional shire horses to remove fallen timber and do the logging in urban woodlands.

Freiburg in Germany (pictured overleaf) has agreed with its citizens to allow parks to grow wild, returning many of them to a more natural state, and turning borders into allotments.

It has improved bio-diversity, and also reduced professional maintenance costs.


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