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Park life

Source: Public Sector Executive Nov/Dec 2012

Ken Worpole, Emeritus Professor at The Cities Institute, London Metropolitan University, spoke at the UK Public Parks Summit, organised by the Heritage Lottery Fund and BIG Lottery Fund. He revisited his seminal Park Life report, which kickstarted the revival of urban parks in 1995, and here explains the need to invest in our parks.

In 1937 the Danish architect Steen Eiler Rasmussen published London:The Unique City, one of the best books ever written about the capital. Surprisingly he spent as much time enthusing about the city’s parks and green spaces as about the buildings.

Rasmussen was not alone. In that great book, Homo Ludens, Dutch historian Johannes Huizinga also enthused about English parks, observing that the flat geography of the urban terrain and “the ubiquitous commons” enabled England to become “the cradle and focus of modern sporting life”.

For most Europeans, he wrote, sports were solely a form of physical prowess. For the English, however, they possessed a spiritual, communal function, evident in kite-flying, Sunday football, village cricket and impromptu ball games. The park was where the British felt most at ease, a view echoed by Italian cultural analyst Franco Bianchini, who once told me: “Europeans have streets and the English have parks.”

The overwhelming success of the 2012 London Olympics & Paralympics caused many to ask what happened to create this ‘better side’ of modern British life and culture. The answer is surely that the much admired ‘Olympic spirit’ is in fact the traditional British ‘park spirit’ writ large.

The popularity of parks and green spaces remains strong, and if anything is growing. Today over half the population of the UK visit parks and green spaces, totalling 2.5 billion visits every year. Southport’s King’s Gardens gets more visitors annually than the Natural History Museum (4.7m and 4.6m respectively), and Hackney’s Clissold Park attracts more than The Greenwich Royal Observatory, Tate Britain or the National Portrait Gallery (2m, 1.8m, 1.6m and 1.5 m). Though comparisons are invidious, they demonstrate the continued popularity of parks.

Britain’s parks are where many young people first get involved in sports. At Clissold Park in Hackney, my local park for more than 40 years, a decade of funding for junior tennis from the Tennis Foundation has produced two National champions, two players with Junior World Rankings and 20 players in the Top Twenty national rankings – all amongst young people not normally drawn to the tennis world.

Today we are living through a parks renaissance, but it has its roots in a perfect storm of community activism, think-tank reports, proliferation of Friends’ groups and lottery initiatives in the mid-1990s. I was involved in the 1995 Comedia & Demos national survey of park use, which produced the report, ‘Park Life: Urban Parks & Social Renewal’. Responding to a national state of alarm we asked in our opening paragraph whether:

“The declining quality of Britain’s urban parks and open spaces is now a matter of extensive public concern, and is part of a wider fear that we can no longer manage safety and well-being in public spaces. Is the ‘keeper-less park’, along with the unstaffed railway station, the poorly lit underground car park, the unsupervised playground, and the deserted town centre at night, going to become another ghost zone of modern Britain?”

Nobody had really studied park use closely before and the pattern of uses proved fascinating. The majority of people came in company; people on their own were in a minority and unaccompanied women were rare (unless with a dog or pushing a pram which gave their presence a public ‘legitimacy’). More than 70% of those interviewed walked to the park, and the majority took less than five minutes to get there, with as many as 40% interviewees claiming to visit their local park daily.

Bringing children to the park, going for a walk, or taking a dog out were the principal reasons giving for using parks, even though the majority had access to private gardens. Many claimed never to visit the countryside.

Several of the report’s recommendations came to pass, including the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Urban Parks Programme established in 1996, since when – latterly with the Big Lottery Fund it has spent more than £600m on restoring over 700 parks. For a long time marginalised in leisure policy, public parks came in from the cold. Yet this great achievement is threatened by the new austerity.

The political ‘turn’ to parks is, however, irreversible. There has been an astonishing rise in the power of Friends’ groups across the UK, along with accumulating evidence of the sheer scale of everyday park use in Britain’s towns and cities. Parks are now seen to be vital to quality of life campaigns emphasising physical activity, outdoor gyms, walking clubs, wheels parks and cycling routes, most of which find a natural home in the local park network.

In future green space will become even more central to urban planning. This is already evident in the new London Green Grid proposals, where park and green networks are given the same priority in the city’s metabolism as road, rail and water. It is a visionary document, which understands that no future city economy can develop without a fully fledged green infrastructure.

Parks still require strategic direction and support, along with a conduit for the exchange of good practice and policy development. CabeSpace is sorely missed, and while GreenSpace is doing an heroic job in providing support for nearly 4,000 Friends’ groups, the need for a national agency remains urgent.

The Olympics and Paralympics demonstrated many good things, and one of them was the need for paid professional support for national and local environmental, sporting and leisure objectives if success is to be sustained. Continued and expanded investment in parks would be a truly worthwhile Olympic legacy.

The UK Public Parks Summit, organised by the Heritage Lottery Fund & BIG Lottery Fund, was held on October 25.

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