Parks in peril?

Harry Bowell, Regional Director for the National Trust, writes about the National Trust’s new partnership with Sheffield City Council to explore new ways of financially supporting the city’s public parks and green spaces. Funded by Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), Big Lottery Fund and Nesta through their Rethinking Parks programme, the project in Sheffield was unveiled this morning with the release of HLF’s comprehensive report into the threats faced by the UK’s parks over the coming years as funding cuts begin to bite.

“Today’s ground-breaking report from Heritage Lottery Fund is an important wake up call for all who care about people and nature.

“Across the UK – but particularly in the Midlands and North of England – local authorities face the biggest cuts to their budgets in a generation – £20bn in 5 years. In Sheffield, a city with more publicly-owned green space per capita than any other city in Western Europe, the situation looks bleak. By 2016 the city council will have had its funding from central government cut by 50% since 2010. Councils aren’t required by law to provide and maintain parks, unlike social care. Faced with huge demands on their dwindling resources, it’s easy to see why parks are expected to shoulder a disproportionate burden of the cuts.

Endcliffe Park, Sheffield. Credit Victoria Bradford-Keegan

Endcliffe Park, Sheffield. Credit Victoria Bradford-Keegan

“The change won’t happen overnight. As today’s report outlines, the decline will be creeping, gradual and pernicious, reversing the gains made by decades of investment and sending parks back to 1970s. As resources are cut and parks are left unmanaged, the number of people who choose to head for the park will fall and, as fewer people use them, the more parks will attract anti-social behaviour and vandalism. This spiral of decline could quickly reach a tipping point with some parks becoming no go zones – witness Central Park in New York in the 1980s.

“It’s clear that central government won’t underwrite the nation’s parks and recreational open spaces – which in England amounts to around 66,000 hectares and an annual cost of roughly £1bn. What’s the alternative? The solution can’t be for national charities like the National Trust to ride to the rescue, with a wholesale take-over of councils’ parks.  Not can local communities be expected to take on this huge responsibility alone. However, the voluntary sector locally and nationally has a vital role in finding solutions to the crisis.

“With the traditional model for funding public parks breaking down, we need bold new ideas; new solutions that, whilst locally specific, can work in every city and town.

“Our new project, funded by nesta, aims to harness the huge value and wide range of benefits that parks provide to demonstrate the potential of endowments in securing the future for public parks for everyone.

“In partnership with Sheffield and Manchester City Councils, the King’s Fund, Magnetic North and Common Purpose, we will be working towards a green space endowment in Sheffield fit for the 21st Century. We seek to unlock new areas of funding for parks, through public benefaction, philanthropy, public health funding and more.

“People care passionately about their parks. In the past decade visits have risen to 2.6billion a year; 9 in 10 households with young children visit their local park at least once a month; and parks friends and user groups have seen visitor numbers increase in the past three years. For many, their local park is the natural space they have the strongest connection with: it’s their special place.

“I live on the edge of Endcliffe Park, a beautiful blend of formal gardens, play areas, bluebell woods and stream, which mixes the formal with something a little wilder.  It also has a great café which is a hub of social activity. The park is my two children’s second home; the perfect place for them to explore the natural world. I want Endcliffe Park to be there and in great shape for my children’s children.

Having a wild time in Endcliffe Park, Sheffield. Credit Harry Bowell

Having a wild time in Endcliffe Park, Sheffield. Credit Harry Bowell

“As the HLF report makes plain, there is a real danger that we sleepwalk our way into a crisis: a crisis for parks and for people’s connection to a healthy natural environment.

“Yet there is a real prize out of this crisis to grow civic pride, connecting people to their local green spaces and giving communities more of a stake in shaping their future.

“This project is not about the National Trust acquiring large tracts of urban parks. In seeking to find new ways of protecting open spaces for city dwellers it takes us back to the very roots of the National Trust, with founders Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter both powerfully motivated to protect urban parks as ‘places of resort for recreation and instruction’.

“In advocating for urban parks we’re doing nothing new. In fact, we’re going back to our roots.”

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