A jogger running past a bandstand at Clapham Common
Bandstand, Clapham Common, Clapham, London © Historic England Archive Explore more photos
Bandstand, Clapham Common, Clapham, London © Historic England Archive Explore more photos

Introduction to Heritage Online Debate Number 9

By Jenifer White, National Landscape Adviser, Historic England

When we were planning to include parks and gardens in the Heritage at Risk Register ten years ago, we assumed the future for public parks was assured with so many great Heritage Lottery Fund schemes underway or planned. Through sponsoring the Landscape Institute’s annual Heritage and Conservation Award we joined in celebrating these great projects that revived and refreshed these valued community assets. Now the trajectory for public parks and urban green spaces is very different. It's timely for Heritage Debate Online to look at the issues, conservation initiatives, and the long term role of public parks.


"Revealed: Thousands of parks are falling into disrepair or being sold off by cash strapped councils as they become 'no go' zones plagued by drug users and anti social behaviour"

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This issue begins by looking at the Victorian legacy of people’s parks and the lasting principle as places for all to freely enjoy. Katy Layton’s Jones research on funding models for Historic England shows that few alternative models proved successful in the long term and importance of local authorities in rescuing and sustaining public parks. David Lambert, one of our Advisory Committee members and an expert on public parks looks at the current issues, and the impacts of austerity and further budget cuts. Many public parks’ teams have to look at alternative income generation. One option is more commercial events. Public parks have always hosted major local events but when do the number and scale of commercial events impede on everyday use of the park, their functionality as green space, and conservation of historic landscape, trees and other features? Andrew Smith, a geographer researching events and urban tourism events as tools for the regeneration and revitalisation of cities, highlights the creeping part-privatisation of public parks.

Drew Bennellick introduces the Heritage Lottery Fund (now the National Lottery Heritage Fund) and Big Lottery’s ‘Rethinking Parks’ programme which was set up to address the public service challenges by supporting innovation to fund and sustain parks. These projects range from nurturing and networking friends groups, generating new income streams through renewables and links with local businesses, to introduction of major governance changes. Through this programme, the National Trust has developed its ‘Future Parks’ toolkit and is now working with Newcastle City Council to transfer the city’s parks and allotment into a new city-wide independent charitable trust in 2019. There is great interest in this new trust model and its long-term success. Will trusts herald a new public park concept for communities? In the meantime, the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government’s Parks Action Group is working on ‘safeguard(ing) the future of parks and green spaces’.

In this issue we also look at Historic England’s on-going work in championing and protecting public parks, and their part in our new place making thinking. In making the case for heritage, we know we need better evidence about public benefits and values. The new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affair-funded ‘ORVal’ map-based tool gives us insights to recreation and health benefits of historic parks, a head start for at least one major heritage asset type in place-making strategies. For example, ORVal shows that Newcastle’s Grade II 14 hectare Leazes Park generates a welfare benefit of nearly £4 million and annual visitor numbers are over 1.5 million. The numbers show how vital public parks and other historic green spaces are to the liveability of towns and cities. Nick Grayson ends this Heritage Debate Online issue with a discussion on the future role of these green spaces and the Birmingham University Liveable Cities project. The Victorians understood the importance of urban parks in creating ‘lungs’ and as the climate changes these green spaces and their upkeep are critical for all of us and future generations in coping with increased temperatures, air quality and rainfall.

John Ruskin’s quote ‘The measure of any great civilisation is its cities, and a measure of a city’s greatness is to be found in the quality of its public spaces, its parks and its squares’ reminds us of the goal. These public parks and spaces are vital to the well-being of communities and the liveability of towns and cities. There is much more to do in raising awareness and support for these historic and culturally important sites. We need everyone in the heritage sector to help ensure parks and green spaces are protected and cherished. Huge changes are unfolding. #ParksMatter

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