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Historic Urban Parks Under Threat

New research in support of public open spaces.

Since 2010 hundreds of local authorities have drastically cut their parks budgets, some by 50 per cent or more. In July 2016 the Parliamentary Select Committee for Communities and Local Government announced that it was to hold an inquiry on the future of these vital open spaces. The extent of public concern about parks is reflected in the volume of evidence submitted to the committee: nearly 400 formal submissions, over 13,000 survey responses, hundreds of #myparkmatters tweets, and a petition calling for protection for parks signed by over 322,000 people.  

On 11 February 2017, as this edition of Historic England Research was being prepared for publication, the committee published its report. The parks sector is taking stock of the resulting findings and recommendations, which include the warning that ‘parks are at a tipping point and face a period of decline with potentially severe consequences unless their vital contribution to areas such as public health, community integration and climate change mitigation is recognised’ . The future of public parks also matters to Historic England, which has made the subject a priority in its urban heritage research strategy.

This article looks at research commissioned by the organisation, the Heritage Lottery Fund and others in the sector, and considers the contribution such research makes to the debate about the future of these important open spaces


According to the Audit Commission, government funding to local authorities reduced by nearly 20 per cent between 2010/11 and 2013/14, with cumulative further cuts planned (Audit Commission 2013). Cuts to parks budgets are often disproportionately greater because the service is non-statutory.

The development comes after a 20-year period in which local authorities have invested in public parks. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has been an important source of support, giving £850 million in grants to such projects. Alarmed by the threat, the HLF published the research report The State of UK Public Parks 2014: Renaissance to Risk? (HLF 2014). This showed that there was a serious risk of decline as local authority cuts deepened.

Such cutbacks affect capital investment in facilities such as play areas and toilets as well as maintenance. They have also led to the loss of two organisations which championed the sector, CABESpace (a non-departmental government body) and GreenSpace (a charity). There is a real danger that parks will slip back into the poor condition they were in a generation ago. In 1999 a select committee ‘was shocked ...about the extent of the problems parks [had] faced in the [previous] 30 years’ ...‘we have inherited an infrastructure of parks of priceless value and their documented and visible decline represents a wasted opportunity of tragic proportions’  (Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee 1999, 181).

These sentiments were echoed in 2016, when the HLF re-ran its State of UK Public Parks research (HLF 2016). Likewise the Gardens Trust, which had produced an important report on public parks (Conway and Lambert 1993), has voiced its concerns anew, publishing Uncertain Prospects: Public Parks in the New Age of Austerity (Layton-Jones 2016b).

These publications confirm the downward trend in the condition of parks. Although parks are popular and hugely valued, and friends groups are helping with some of their maintenance, the budgets available to them are continuing to fall, and staff and skills alike are being lost. The implications are significant not only for the public benefits which parks offer but also for the historic environment.

Infographics about urban parks
Heritage Lottery Fund’s 2016 State of UK Public Parks report key findings © Heritage Lottery Fund

Historic significance

Many of our public parks date from the 19th century. Often overlooked as historic features, they were, nevertheless, important elements of Victorian civic infrastructure, sitting alongside town halls, museums, libraries, roads and sewers as key developments in the improvement of towns and cities. Britain was a world leader in creating and developing the concept of the public park; indeed it can be claimed that influential sites such as Birkenhead Park deserve World Heritage Site status. The historic importance of public parks is recognised by the International Scientific Committee on Cultural Landscapes, an organisation within the International Commission on Monuments and Sites, in a special declaration (ICOMOS-IFLA 2013).

Over 300 public parks are now registered on the National Heritage List for England as designed landscapes of special historic interest. The list also includes such urban green spaces as garden squares, public walks for promenading, and detached town gardens, see the Historic England 2013 publication on urban landscapes. Many more parks are of local interest; and many also include buildings, statues, gates and railings that are listed in their own right. Some even include scheduled monuments,or are important features of conservation areas.

Previous parks research

People’s Parks: The Design and Development of Victorian Parks in Britain (Conway 1991) remains the seminal volume on the history of public parks. Curiously, and in spite of the importance of parks to urban social history and the development of civic infrastructure, there has been little further academic study of the subject. The Heritage Lottery Fund Parks for People projects, as well as various initiatives by friends’  groups, have generated significant research on individual parks, but much of this is grey literature and often hard to access.

Three years ago, responding to the lack of any substantive research in this area, Historic England (then English Heritage) published a review of research priorities for public parks (Layton-Jones 2014). The author, historian Katy Layton-Jones, also wrote the 2016 Gardens Trust report; she highlighted some of the challenges involved in raising the profile of the heritage significance of public parks, ‘including the difficulty of engaging academic interest,’  a significant issue in its own right. The review also provides a comprehensive list of references, including research and guidance carried out over the last 20 years.

Historic England has followed through on the findings of this review. The entries and grades for public parks included in the National Heritage List for England have been reviewed to take stock of both HLF restoration projects and new research. Some 30 parks have been upgraded. In addition Historic England has published a new registration selection guide for urban landscapes (Historic England 2013). 

Individual public parks continue to be registered, the most recent being Barrow Park in Cumbria. This is an early 20th-century park designed by the renowned landscape architect Thomas Mawson. As part of the First World War centenary commemorations Historic England is identifying memorial parks and gardens, adding them to the register and in turn expanding our understanding of public park development since 1918. There is undoubtedly more to review in terms of late 20th century public parks, including public open space and recreation developments of the 1970s and 1980s, such as the country parks created as a result of the Countryside Act 1968.

The public parks in the National Heritage List for England represent the most important of a huge number of such sites. Each entry records the historical development of the park from conception to the end of the 20th century, offering insights into the development of parks and urban infrastructure generally. The research potential inherent in these texts is considerable. The Heritage Lottery Fund-supported conservation management plans for a wide range of parks and green spaces are also a rich potential resource.

Funding models

By 2013 it was clear to senior parks sector executives that a single unified voice for parks and green spaces was needed if the funding crisis and loss of leadership in the sector were to be addressed.

As a result, the Parks Alliance was set up. With the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces (the national umbrella organisation for friends’ organisation for local parks), and support from the sector’ s leading magazine Horticulture Week, the Parks Alliance began to lobby for a select committee inquiry to address the issue.

A better understanding of the relative success of past funding models was needed. Indeed Dr Layton-Jones’  research had already identified this problem. There was, she later put it, ‘a tendency to romanticise the actions of 19th century leaders and demonise the actions of their 20th century successors’  (Layton-Jones 2016a, 1). Historic England thus asked her to explore these historic funding models and the lessons they held for the 21st century. At the same time the HLF, with the Big Lottery Fund and the innovation charity Nesta, set up a Rethinking Parks programme, the aim of which is to follow through on the need for new finance and delivery models, as identified in The State of UK Public Parks 2014. The two complementary projects offer both historical perspectives and models for the future.

The new Historic England-commissioned historical research (Layton-Jones 2016a) shows that government funding for public park provision was initially both inadequate and slow to materialise, and that it took many years for local authorities to have the power to establish and maintain parks for their communities.

Early parks were often set up through philanthropic donations, usually in response to a desperate need for such facilities. While these gifts of land or money were important, they did not offer parks long-term financial stability. Indeed, Layton-Jones notes that ‘the financial legacy of the so-called “heroes” of the Victorian parks movement, was rather less impressive than their statues might lead us to believe’  (Layton-Jones 2016a, 15). It was not until the 1890s that local authorities began both to take on existing parks and to create new ones. In spite of this, by the end of the First World War, many parks were in disrepair and as a result were brought into local authority stewardship.

The report also includes a chronology of park developments and modes of acquisition, created by Hazel Conway; and a list of those sites that are registered, with the dates they were opened as public parks. It is thus a major research contribution.

In the report, Layton-Jones emphasises that a lack of adequate resources has dogged parks for more than 150 years, and that government funding through local authorities has proven itself to be the longest-lasting and most sustainable model. There is also a strong history of local authorities using parks to generate income, for example through cafés, attractions and events. Local government has also played a critical role in parks’  recent period of restoration and rejuvenation, by initiating and implementing projects, match-funding HLF grants, and working with localcommunities and businesses.  

The Rethinking Parks programme, meanwhile, has showcased innovative funding models, and highlighted the potential that exists for new revenue-generation ideas and ways of cutting costs. Examples include the development of a new generation of endowmentsthrough sources like capital funding, Business Improvement District levies, and receipts from asset sales or planning gain; the creation of donation and subscription schemes; and the reduction of costs by changing landscape management arrangements. However, its key finding is that there is no long-term ‘silver bullet’  alternative to local authority funding and thus that it will be essential to diversify the sources of money available to parks.  

The select committee inquiry looked at possible funding models for parks, and in particular at alternatives to local authority funding. Contributors to their inquiry have discussed current local authority funding issues and the consequences of parks being a non-statutory service. Historic England submitted the Layton-Jones report as part of its evidence to the inquiry.

In her oral evidence to the select committee Julia Thrift, Projects and Operations Director at the Town and Country Planning Association, made the point that ‘if you look at other forms of infrastructure that benefit the whole of society in the same way that the parks do, you come to the conclusion that the way they are funded is through general taxation. It is not politically very popular, but it is the obvious answer to how you fund that sort of infrastructure with those multiple and enormous benefits’ (14 November 2016).

Submissions to the inquiry made a strong call for the principle that the funding of public parks should be made a statutory duty for local authorities, but, in a break with the past, the 2017 report was ‘not persuaded’ on the matter. The committee report does not offer solutions to the funding crisis other than that innovation is needed.

A statue of Sir Robert Peel in Bradfrod's Peel Park.
The statue of Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) in Bradford’s Peel Park. © Tim Green

Further research

In the meantime, there is a need to find out more about the significance of our inherited parks and green spaces and the contribution they make.  

For example, the universities of Leeds and Bradford are running an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project,The Future Prospects of Urban Parks: The Life, Times and Social Order of Victorian Public Parks as Places of Social Mixing’ , helping carry forward the research agenda set out by Historic England.

This two-year project aims to understand the social significance, role and prospects of Victorian public parks. It examines the governance of urban public parks in the past and present alike, and looks at the experiences and expectations associated with them. It extends historical research into the governance of urban public space beyond city streets and squares, and aims to reveal the extent to which the Victorian ideal of the park as a place of civilising influence over the urban poor and labouring classes was realised and experienced.

The researchers want to contribute to a reinterpretation and reinvigoration of the vision, governance and sustainability of urban parks. The research team are planning a cross-sector conference in July 2017 to discuss the select committee findings.

Public parks comprise some of the largest green spaces in towns and cities, and are therefore major components of the urban ‘green infrastructure’  that is vital to the functionality, liveability and sustainability of these places. They are increasingly important as climate change intensifies. A green infrastructure of well-managed parks and other open spaces can help mitigate the problems of rainfall run-off, increasing urban temperatures, and declining air and water quality.

The select committee report picks up the important role of parks as green infrastructure and recommends a review of recent guidance. The ecosystem values (see Historic England Research 4, November 2016) inherent in historic parks need to be better understood, so that parks can be integrated into this infrastructure.

The Natural Environment Research Council’ s Valuing Nature programme recently funded a placement project with Historic England, leading to the publication by them of a policy and practice note focusing on the significance of heritage values for public parks, which is a start (NERC 2016).

Given that the National Heritage List for England data suggests that the opportunity to create new large-scale urban parks probably only occurs once in a generation, it is hard to overstate their importance as part of the green infrastructure, in addition to their role as places of historic significance.

Green infrastructure planning requires the mapping and modelling of green spaces, as well as the creation of a typology by which sites can be classified. Such typologies need to reflect the historic significance of parks. Katy Layton-Jones (2014) also discusses the importance of typologies for historical studies. In its efforts to develop the evidence base for green infrastructure as part of sustainable urban development, the European Union-funded Green Surge project, which runs across 11 countries, is looking at such typologies. Early results highlight the challenges involved in drawing together the considerable empirical evidence that exists for the connection between urban green infrastructure and cultural services, in particular the heritage value of parks and green spaces.

There are challenges for Historic England too, as designation is limited to historic significance and thus cannot weave in the social role of parks. Historic England can, however, address such themes in other ways. One example is a forthcoming book by Paul Rabbitts on bandstands.

Research into the future of urban environments provides valuable insight into the sustainability and resilience of our towns and cities. We need to make sure historic parks and green spaces are integrated into these studies. Public parks were created as ‘lungs’  for cities and have an important role in the future of urban communities.

The research programmes led by Historic England and others will help generate a better future for these open spaces, which are at once richly significant historic places and vital to urban well-being. The select committee’ s findings also call for better understanding about the value of parks and their contribution to broader agendas and national priorities such as health, climate change and flooding. The committee intends to look to these issues again before the end of this parliament.


An archive postcard of Lund Park
The land for Lund Park was given to Keighley Corporation in 1888. A bandstand was given by Keighley Friendly Societies' Gala Committee, a drinking fountain was donated by Lund's children, and a fountain, by James Lund. © Historic England
Jenifer White


Jenifer White MSc CMLI is one of Historic England’ s specialists in the care, repair and conservation of historic parks and gardens. As a chartered landscape architect with a career in landscape conservation and protection, she plays a lead role in developing evidence-based technical policy, standards and best practice for parks and open spaces.

Further reading

Audit Commission 2013 Tough Times 2013: Councils’ Responses to Financial Challenges from 2010/11 to 2013/14

Communities and Local Government Select Committee public parks inquiry

Written evidence submitted to the inquiry by Historic England

The select committee’ s final report

Conway H 1991 People’s Parks: The Design and Development of Victorian Parks in Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Conway H and Lambert D 1993 Public Prospects: Historic Urban Parks Under Threat. London: Garden History Society and Victorian Society

Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee 1999, Town and Country Parks, 20th report

The Future Prospects of Urban Parks project

The Green Surge project

The HLF Parks for People projects

HLF 2014, The State of UK Public Parks 2014: Renaissance to Risk? London: Heritage Lottery Fund

HLF 2016, The State of UK Public Parks 2016 London: Heritage Lottery Fund

Historic England 2013 Urban Landscapes: Designation Register of Parks and Gardens Selection Guide. Swindon: Historic England

ICOMOS-IFLA declaration on historic public parks

Layton-Jones, K 2014, National Review of Research Priorities for Urban Parks, Designed Landscapes and Opens Spaces. Swindon: Historic England Research Report Series 4/2014

Layton-Jones K 2016a, History of Public Park Funding and Management (1820–2010). Swindon: Historic England Research Report Series  20/2016

Layton-Jones, K 2016b Uncertain Prospects: Public Parks in the New Age of Austerity

NERC 2016, Taking Account of Heritage Values of Urban Parks and Gardens. Living With Environmental Change Policy and Practice Note 36

The Rethinking Parks programme

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