Image of closed gates at Victory Park, Leiston.
Facilities such as play areas and outdoor gyms are closed across England © Jenifer White
Facilities such as play areas and outdoor gyms are closed across England © Jenifer White

Parks, People and a Pandemic

By Ian Baggott, Managing Director at CFP

The value of urban green space to society is arguably at one of its highest points in recent history. The link between green space and public health that drove the great Victorian park building era is now vital in how we deal with the pandemic that is upon us.

The past six weeks have shown just how important our historic parks are. The pandemic has raised so many issues about their role in society: how they're funded and managed, how equitably they're distributed, what is an acceptable form of recreation versus the criminalisation of sunbathing and sitting, the human carrying capacity of spaces, let alone how we move out of lockdown and the part that parks will play in recovery.

My company, CFP, teamed up with the Midlands Parks Forum to undertake a survey to gather information for Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), in order to aid their understanding of how parks managers are responding to the pandemic. Largely midlands focussed, but with respondents from across the UK, the survey produced some key findings:

  • Closing parks: the survey closed before the government announced that all parks should stay open, but it found that 25% of respondents had already closed spaces
  • Social distancing: we found that 90% of respondents felt that the majority of users were observing the guidelines
  • Diverting parks staff: the government has placed local authorities as a key deliverer of many aspects of its Covid-19 response and, combined with sickness and self-isolation, this has meant that parks staff are being redeployed mainly to bins and bereavement services but also to care roles, delivering food parcels and PPE
  • Impacts on service delivery: these have gone beyond the initial rush to close play areas, car parks, multi sports areas, outdoors gyms, cafes and public toilets. They are now concentrated on grounds maintenance such as reduced or ceased grass cutting, sealing off litter bins, dealing with increased fly tipping. This increase is because garden waste collections have stopped, the tips are closed and staff presence on site is reduced.
  • Financial impacts could be huge: austerity cuts have created a commercialisation agenda with parks services being driven towards the ‘zero budget’. But with almost every income generating activity closed or cancelled, parks services are in the red.

For Trusts managing green space the future is precarious, public appeals have been launched and some have months to live. With emergency funding aimed at businesses and ticketed attractions, it reinforces the fact that ‘nature never closes’ but few are willing to pay for it.

How we move out of lockdown and how urban green space, in all its various types, helps with recovery are at the forefront of every parks manager’s thinking.

The immediate thoughts are operationally driven: do we re-open play areas, ball courts, public toilets and so on? But there are much bigger thoughts now surfacing about the 'post pandemic park' and we have to seize this opportunity to work collaboratively across sectors and across countries to create a new future for parks.

There are so many things to consider. Here are just a few:

  • How do we ensure a greater degree of collaboration across professions, sectors, and within communities to create a new strategic vision for urban green space based on principles of social equity, sustainability and public health?
  • Covid-19 has been described as 'an amplifier of existing inequalities'. We know that urban green space is not equitably distributed, so what is the relationship between quantity, quality and accessibility of green space in relation to demographics and health indicators?
  • Do our historic, formal parks have the carrying capacity for social distancing?
  • How do we cope with waves of future lockdowns, with a year/years of social distancing measures? Will we need to regulate levels of use or do we need spatial or temporal segregation of (conflicting) uses?
  • Will we face another round of austerity and can parks survive it? Has commercialisation put parks services at greater risk? What is the new business model?
  • Do we need to adopt new forms of land management?

All ideas welcome!

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