City skyline showing an extensive tree canopy in the Edgbaston Conservation Area
City skyline showing an extensive tree canopy in the Edgbaston Conservation Area; across the Calthorpe Estate in Birmingham, less than a mile out from the city centre © Birmingham City Council
City skyline showing an extensive tree canopy in the Edgbaston Conservation Area; across the Calthorpe Estate in Birmingham, less than a mile out from the city centre © Birmingham City Council

Visit Your Local Park, Protect the NHS, Save Lives

By Helen Monger, Director at the London Parks and Gardens Trust

In 2016, public parks were the subject of a public inquiry into their future (see previous Heritage Online Debate). The sector called for statutory recognition, to put them on parity with other services such as libraries and museums. Whilst the value of parks was recognised in an existential way, the sector was not granted its wish. Sophisticated models were developed to assess the contribution of parks to the economy and justify maintenance costs. Further budget cuts ensued (whether directly via governmental sources or indirectly competing with other funding priorities for grants and planning gain monies).

As a result of this pandemic, there is renewed recognition of the importance of access to green space. I am focussing here on public parks, but many of my observations are pertinent to other publicly accessible landscapes, including major historic gardens and natural beauty spots. In urban areas, public parks are busier than ever, and the world of park managers has been turned on its head. Instead of seeking commercial income from increased visitors through sporting venues and cafes, now the park manager’s job is to fence-off access to the very same facilities and equipment that might enable rest and relaxation.

A recent article discussing the future of parks, poses the question: will the behavioural changes necessitated by this pandemic result in a different sort of park? It points out that over 30% of park income currently comes from commercial sources – mainly from car parking charges, concessions and events. In an ironic twist, park managers focussed on sourcing cheap fencing, chains and bolts, face increased maintenance costs, whilst their income has disappeared.

Closer to home for me, the London Parks and Gardens Trust is struggling for its own financial survival. The Trust, a member-based charity set up in 1994, champions London’s historic landscapes, often faced with the threat of inappropriate building development. Since 1999, the Trust has expanded its work by generating income through public events including an annual celebration, Open Garden Squares Weekend. This event celebrating the richness of the capital’s historic green spaces, provides public access to over 100 gardens and squares generating a surplus that the Trust uses to subsist on the rest of the year. This event along with many others was brought to an abrupt halt this year, as a consequence of Covid-19, resulting in a financial loss.

Like the rest of the tourist and events sector, the Trust cannot currently generate income. Charities at the frontline, dealing with this pandemic, have understandably been prioritised by Government for additional funds. The Government has also released other funding support for those who pay Business Rates or can consider loans. However, the Trust, with no significant assets, is ineligible for any of these schemes. Many small (micro) charities working in the heritage and environmental sectors are facing the same situation – yet addressing climate change and the need to look after the historic environment is ongoing. The Trust continues to receive weekly lists of planning applications which threaten the very spaces that have shown themselves so precious for people to cope during this period of restrictions.

Biophilia reduces mental health problems, and parkland provides the perfect antidote to obesity and physical inactivity (the fourth largest cause of mortality in England). At the time of writing, the UK remains in lockdown with no clear route to recovery, but the Government guidance continues to encourage exercise in the fresh air, based locally, so people can stay fit and healthy. Natural spaces are therefore essential for today’s survival and for everyone’s future well-being and recovery, however long that takes. So to adapt the pandemic mantra, ‘Visit your local park, Protect the NHS, and Save Lives' will remain true long after this period is over. If the case for investment in parks and landscapes as a public good was not clear in 2016, it surely is now.

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