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Persuading Ron Swanson: Rethinking Parks

‘I don’t want this parks department to build any parks because I don’t believe in government.  I think that all government is a waste of taxpayer money!’

Ron Swanson, Director of the Parks and Recreation Department in Pawnee.

Sometimes it feels as though the greenspace sector has been besieged by an army of Ron Swansons.  With the current political climate favouring a shrinking of the state and the consequent retreat of local government, parks have slipped down the priority list.  At a time of reducing public sector resources, parks are finding it increasingly difficult securing their share of scarce cash against seemingly more direct and urgent needs such as housing, social care and health.  What can we do?  Our fictional friend Ron has an answer:

“My dream is to have the parks system privatised and run entirely for profit by corporations.”

However in a market based system, you’d think only those parks that are able to turn over regular profits for shareholders can stay open.  Otherwise, we are left reliant on the kind of philanthrophic acts that helped create the first public parks of the Victorian Age.  Somehow I doubt that the small local park near my home is a dormant cash cow, primed for integration into the international capitalist system, or on the radar of the Gates Foundation.  This is why local authorities became park custodians in the first place.  For parks to be parks, they need to be accessible for all to enjoy, regardless of personal income.  As such, the answer cannot be as black and white as Ron would have us believe, and so must surely fall somewhere in between the public and private ends of the spectrum.  It is the seeking of innovative answers within this space that forms the focus of Nesta’s ‘Rethinking Parks’ programme, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Big Lottery Fund.

Nesta ‘Rethinking Parks’ programme – bringing the public, private and voluntary sectors together

The Nesta ‘Rethinking Parks’ programme is comprised of a cohort of 11 parks that are actively seeking to test new models of park management and maintenance.  The initiative is the result of the influential Heritage Lottery Fund ‘State of UK Public Parks’ (2014) report which assessed the current state and future trends in the condition of UK public parks.  The report demonstrated how valued parks are for health and wellbeing, economic growth and tourism, and how they support efforts to fight climate change.  More specifically, the report highlighted evidence demonstrating their value:

UK public parks are valued

– 2.6 billion visits are made to UK parks per year

– 70% of park managers recorded an increase in visitor numbers to their principal parks over the last year

– £30 million is raised by park friends of groups per year

– 83% of people with children under 5 visit a park at least once a month

– 47% of park friends of groups reported an increase in membership


The report also highlights how the quality and condition of parks will dramatically decline if action is not taken to face the growing risks to parks:

UK public parks are at risk

– 86% of park managers have reported cuts to park revenue budgets and expect the trend to continue

– 81% of parks departments have lost skilled management staff since 2010

– 77% of parks departments have lost front line staff since 2010

– 45% of local authorities are considering selling parks and green spaces or transferring the management to others

– 71% of households are concerned that local authority cuts will have an adverse impact on the condition of their local park 

The Rethinking Parks programme flows from the recommendations of this report and is about encouraging park innovators to consider new ideas and solutions to evaluate and then to subsequently share their insights so that others can learn from their experiences.

This brings us to the third element of the public-private dichotomy that has not yet been mentioned – arguably the most significant at all – the voluntary sector.  Here lies those people that do not work for local government or private companies, yet have an intrinsic interest in parks and green spaces and represent the communities that use and rely on them.  They bring a burning passion and belief for public parks to the table that is sometimes unavoidably diluted within the public and private sector in the push for cost-cutting and profit generation.  It is this that makes  the ‘Rethinking Parks’ programme such a valuable movement for public parks – bringing passionate people from the voluntary sector together with equally dynamic yet often constrained green space professionals from the public and private sectors, to explore new and innovative solutions that help reverse the difficulties affecting UK public parks.

The 11 Rethinking Parks projects share progress at Heeley Park, Sheffield

The ‘Rethinking Parks’ programme is now about halfway through to completion.  Last month (April 2015) saw representatives from all 11 projects come together at Heeley Park in Sheffield to review how far they’d come individually and to consider their impact collectively.  What came across during this day was just how important passion and drive really is.  These are projects being delivered by people who wholeheartedly believe in the significance of parks to our communal well-being and strive to change the seemingly fixed adverse trajectory affecting them.  Listening to Andy Jackson of the Heeley Development Trust eloquently tell the story of Heeley Park, the challenges overcome, the difference made and the compelling community-based vision for the future reminded me why I chose to work in the green space sector in the first place.  If only there was an Andy Jackson for each of our parks, we wouldn’t have needed the ‘State of UK public parks’ report in the first place.  While we often talk about parks in relation to the public, private and voluntary sectors (as I have been doing up to now!), this underplays the importance of individual visionaries like Andy that push the boundaries, make things happen and subsequently transform the sector.  Indeed, Lydia Rangoonanan of Nesta recognised this early on in the ‘Rethinking Parks’ programme when she shared some of her first insights: passion is a quality that cannot be learned.

Andy Jackson of the Heeley Development Trust tells the story of Heeley Park and its vision for the future

Andy Jackson of the Heeley Development Trust tells the story of Heeley Park and its community-based vision for the future

During the course of the day, I heard updates from 11 projects including Eastbrookend Country Park in Barking and Dagenham which I am actively involved in through the Thames Chase Trust.  On the surface, the solution for local parks seems simple: increase income and/or reduce costs.  Sounds obvious doesn’t it?  It is in the specific tailored methods by which income is increased, or costs reduced that innovation will become apparent.  On both sides of the revenue/cost equation the public, private and voluntary sectors are demonstrating their ability to play individual, bespoke roles that add up to a more favourable position that can sustain a park.

Here are the 11 projects that are rethinking parks:

1. Bloomsbury Squared, London Borough of Camden, London
Across several urban squares in Bloomsbury where business and community use is intertwined, the London Borough of Camden is testing the appetite for community management solutions that can help reduce costs, while engaging the business community to increase revenue.  Through the ideas of voluntary and compulsory levies, the project is echoing efforts in Bryant Park in Manhattan.

2. Endowing Parks for the 21st Century, Sheffield and Manchester
The National Trust, in partnership with Sheffield and Manchester City Councils is exploring a new endowment model for public parks across their local authority areas to be funded by institutional investors and the business community.  The endowment would be supported by income-generating social enterprise (e.g. park cafes) that underpin sustainability and ensure future maintenance costs can be met.

3. Park Hack, Hackney, London
Exploring revenue generation through business engagement is the focus of Groundwork London and the London Borough of Hackney.  In particular, the aim is to increase income without reducing the experience or availability of the park to the wider public.  The prototype includes an exciting, rentable treehouse workspace to generate revenue and interest in the concept.  I look forward to giving this workspace a try!
Mountain bike track at Heeley Park, Sheffield

Heeley Park, Sheffield: Mountain bike track

4. Coastal Parks and Garden Foundation, Bournemouth
In Bournemouth, the Council are seeking to create a Foundation for parks across its authority, testing the extent to which public giving can help financially sustain a park.  In particular, I love the idea of deploying mobile, digital methods that encourage impulsive giving at the moment of maximum emotional connection to the park environment!  Think Oyster card and contactless type technologies.

5. Everton Park – A Community Hub, Liverpool
Here, the Land Trust, Liverpool City Council and the Friends of Everton Park are putting in place a long term plan for community management of the park.  The transfer of the park from the local authority to the Land Trust creates the chance to increase community involvement in a positive way that helps reduce costs.  I am reminded of how significant community involvement has been in allowing this to happen in Thames Chase Community Forest through my work with the volunteer-led Thames Chase Trust

6. Go to the Park, Burnley
I love this project for its quirkiness!  In Burnley, the potential solution being tested combines biodiversity enhancement with income generation through the establishment of bee farms.  This really is outside of the box (or the hive!).  The project also involves the community through a VIP (Volunteer in Parks) programme that supports the cost reduction element of the project.

Heeley Park, Sheffield: Climbing boulders (about 2m high!) for adventurous play

7. My Park Scotland, Edinburgh and Glasgow
My Park Scotland is seeking to find the right balance between levels of information people are willing to give and then appropriately interrogating that information to help develop relationships and charitable giving.  The approach builds on existing digital technologies that enable people to explore heritage and cultural aspects of parks in Glasgow using a digital map.  Using such information sensitively yet effectively has enabled many cause-centred charities to grow to national significance.

8. Eastbrookend Rekindled, Barking and Dagenham, London
The project I am involved with.  The Thames Chase Trust is working with Barking and Dagenham Council and the Friends of the Chase to explore the concept of a diversified ‘hub’ model for the Millennium Centre at Eastbrookend Country Park.  This building was built and designed in the 1990s with a large public sector funded ranger team in mind – something no longer tenable.  By broadening the use base and reconfiguring the building, new income could be generated within a desirable, yet underused location representing the first swathe of countryside to be found as you move out of London.  A better, more effective relationship with the Friends of the Chase could help reduce costs and increase positive community involvement as part of the overall model.
Millennium Centre, Eastbrookend Country Park: Reconfiguring spaces to generate park income as part of a 'hub' concept

Millennium Centre, Eastbrookend Country Park: Reconfiguring spaces to generate park income as part of a ‘hub’ concept

9. Darlington Rethinking Parks, Darlington
In this project Groundwork, Darlington Council, Darlington Cares and the Green Spaces Forum are testing the potential of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) schemes as part of park management and maintenance plans.  By connecting altruistic giving of skills and money to park maintenance in a more co-ordinated and planned way, this could help support the financial sustainability of parks while strengthening the bond people feel for their greenspaces.  This project highlights the potential of connecting with non-traditional park audiences.

10. ParkWork, Bristol
The Bristol Parks Forum and Bristol City Council are seeking to address the issue of parks and local economy in a joined up way through their project.  They aim to tackle the wider issue of unemployment by upskilling marginalised members of their community through skills and training opportunities in local parks that address maintenance needs.  This is an intelligent idea that demonstrates that the problems facing public parks do not necessarily have to be dealt with in isolation from other social issues.

11. Heeley Park Subscription Society, Sheffield
The Heeley Development Trust is looking to develop a subscription model for Heeley Park in Sheffield.  The subscription would serve to increase income by offering members additional opportunities over and above the existing free facilities in the park (e.g. preferential booking to concerts held in the park) as part of wider income generating strategy for Heeley Park.  Spending a day at Heeley Park really inspired me – I have no doubt that the Heeley Park Development Trust will continue to make the Park a success.

Persuading Ron Swanson

So, can all this persuade Ron Swanson?  We know that the answer to preserving the UK’s public parks lies in the interaction between the public, private and voluntary sectors.  It does not lie solely in the hand of private enterprise as Ron would have us believe.  There are 11 projects in progress that are testing possible solutions involving all three sectors, trialling innovative methods that could increase income and reduce costs.  Is this enough to persuade Ron?

If not, then pointing him towards the people driving positive change for public parks – people like Andy – must surely win him over.  His enthusiastic deputy Leslie Knope once reflected that “these people are members of the community that care about where they live.  So what I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring loudly at me.”  The 11 Rethinking Parks projects are all caring loudly in an effort to make the Rons of this world listen.  I am sure that he will.  After all,  he did say with admiration only thinly veiled by his characteristic deadpan manner that ‘Leslie has a lot of qualities I find horrifying, but the worst one by far is how thoughtful she can be…’

I feel privileged to be part of the Nesta ‘Rethinking Parks’ programme and look forward to seeing these 11 ideas grow and develop during the course of 2015, and then support their dissemination.  From what I’ve seen so far, there will be some fantastic lessons to be shared by the programme end in December that will pique even Ron Swanson’s interest.