Public parks Contents

2Why do parks matter?

The role of parks

9.There are estimated to be more than 27,000 parks and green spaces across the UK.18 These spaces are diverse, ranging from large principal parks with many facilities and amenities, to small neighbourhood or pocket parks. The recent Heritage Lottery Fund’s State of UK Public Parks 2016 report found that three quarters of local authority park managers had reported increases in visitor numbers over the past three years. Usage was particularly high among:

a)people between the ages of 25 and 34 (70 per cent use their park at least once a month);

b)households with children under the age of five (90 per cent use their park at least once a month);

c)people identifying as Black and Minority Ethnic (of whom 71 per cent use their park at least once a month compared to 56 per cent of people identifying as White).

Park usage is also higher among those living in urban areas than those living in rural areas (61 per cent compared to 51 per cent use their parks at least once a month).19 Different parks play different roles in their communities, and people use different parks in different ways. In our survey, we asked people to select the uses they made of their local park from a list of suggestions. The top twenty options selected by respondents are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: The top twenty most selected uses made of local parks by respondents to our survey

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Source: Communities and Local Government Committee, What do people think about their local parks? Results of a survey by the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee (November 2016)

Children and young people

10.A survey undertaken by Fields in Trust in November 2015 found that 69 per cent of respondents believed that the loss of parks could be detrimental to children’s development.20 The letters we received from young people themselves has very clearly demonstrated how strongly they feel about their parks.

Figure 3: Views from children and young people


Source: Correspondence from Birley Community Primary School, September 2016 and Year 5 pupils at Greystones Primary School, September 2016 (Part 1, Part 2)

11.We also asked many of those who gave oral evidence what made parks so important to them. The evidence we heard from 10 year-old Baxter McLewin-Freund was particularly compelling. He explained that he went to the park to spend time with his family and friends:

I think I have over 20 friends who I just don’t see every day, because we go to different schools. Parks are the main reason we are friends, because we only see each other there.

Another big thing is that, while I am 10 now, I have had nine birthdays in the park, probably in the same place. It has just become practically a part of me. If I didn’t have parks I don’t know what I would do. I honestly think I would have to go outside of Lambeth to get some fresh air—maybe even outside of London—because I think that parks are the best way that I can be close to nature and to everything that I like in my life—maybe not everything I like in my life, but parks are the best way to connect with everything that is outside and outdoorsy.21

12.The rights of children to play and join in other recreational activities are enshrined in Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Play Wales noted that UN General Comment No. 17 on the UNCRC states that measures likely to impact on children’s Article 31 rights, including those relating to the provision of parks and green spaces, must take into account the best interests of children.22 Many of those who gave evidence to our inquiry highlighted the importance of parks for children and young people, for example for learning and education, play, and children’s mental and physical health. The Field Studies Council emphasised the role of parks as a relatively inexpensive way for children to explore wildlife, biodiversity and the natural environment as part of their education, arguing that “learning outside the classroom not only brings subjects to life, but often engages learners who sometimes struggle in a conventional school setting”.23 The benefits of playing outside for children and young people include positive impacts on their physical and mental health and wellbeing, improved dexterity and coordination, and the opportunity to build social connections and relationships.24 One parent told us that:

Having such a good park so close to our home is a real benefit to us all, as it gives my son the opportunity to run around in the fresh air away from cars. As a result of such exercise he is growing well, eating well, and often sleeps well, which is of course beneficial for my husband and me!25

Physical and mental health and wellbeing

13.Almost everyone who took part in our inquiry raised the contribution of parks and green spaces to physical and mental health. ResPublica found in July 2015 that 61 per cent of respondents who said that they had good access to green spaces were satisfied with their physical health compared to only 44 per cent of those who had poor access. In the same survey, only 14 per cent of people with good access to green spaces were dissatisfied with their mental health, compared to 22 per cent who had poor access to green spaces.26 One park user described his use of a local park:

I had an operation and was off work for a few months. It was an isolating experience, but I found solace in my park and it became the main focus of my daily routine. Only then did it become clear that parks are such vital spaces for people who’ve been dealt a bad hand. During the working week I’d notice an abundance of people like myself, using the park as their sanctuary.27

14.Mind, the mental health charity, arranged an online postcard campaign in spring 2016. It asked its supporters to identify places in their communities which helped them to feel better. Over 10 per cent of respondents named a park as “the place they would go when they wanted to improve their wellbeing”.28 This was echoed by evidence from one carer:

I am in recovery from severe depressive illness and taking time out from the demands of my daily challenges as the carer of a high-dependency, vulnerable adult is vital to maintaining my mental health. Being a volunteer in a green space gives me the opportunity to be part of a group and work alongside friends I have made through this activity.29

15.Parks also encourage physical exercise and activity, whether through organised sports such as football, crown green bowls or athletics, or through informal activity such as walking, running or playing. We heard parks described as “free gyms [ … ] a cost effective means of maintaining physical and psychological wellbeing”.30 This echoed research undertaken in 2015 by Fields in Trust (formerly the National Playing Fields Association), which found that 50 per cent of people said they would be less active without their local parks and green spaces, and 48 per cent said that using their local park made them feel healthier.31 The OPENspace Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh noted that the health benefits linked to urban green space include:

16.We received written evidence from a group of people in Greater Manchester who are living with dementia. The group told us it meets for weekly walks in local parks, which gives its members a safe and inexpensive place to exercise while also enabling them to benefit from peer support and social interaction. In addition to physical health benefits, the group noted that parks provided its members with opportunities to have contact with, and feel part of, their local community, without experiencing the stigma which people living with dementia often feel:

In a park setting, people will often ‘stop and talk.’ The group felt that this something special about parks that may not ordinarily happen in another setting.33

Active travel

17.Parks play a role in encouraging active travel,34 for example, by forming part of “safe green corridors that encourage people to walk or cycle to work”.35 The Birmingham and Black Country Local Nature Partnership told us that the importance of green infrastructure in providing safe networks for people to travel actively can be overlooked, suggesting that:

New cycle routes can be mirrored by ecological networks as investment is taking place, in turn providing access, health, and wider green infrastructure benefits.36

Community cohesion and identity

18.We invited respondents to our survey to use a free text box to tell us anything else that they wanted us to know about their park. We created a word cloud from their responses (Figure 4). The size of the words indicates the frequency with which respondents used them. Among the largest is: “community”.

Figure 4: Word cloud of free text responses to the parks survey

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Source: Communities and Local Government Committee, What do people think about their local parks? Results of a survey by the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee (November 2016)

19.The University of Leeds described parks as:

places where history is made, both in terms of major public events—political rallies, mass meetings, demonstrations and civic celebrations—and in terms of people’s intimate lives—their romances, friendships, family outings and personal commemorations.37

20.The role of parks within local communities, as spaces which are open and available to all was a common theme throughout our inquiry, whether as a refuge from stress and the busyness of modern life, or as a social space for people of different ages or from different backgrounds to come together.38 The Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature project highlighted a 2006 study which had found that the social aspects of public open spaces, including parks, were “crucial to local identity and people’s attachment to place. [ … ] parks and green spaces as places in which ethnic diversity was routinely experienced and negotiated and which therefore foster inter-ethnic understanding”.39 Dr Ian Mell of Liverpool University noted that while different ethnic groups make different uses of parks, “south Asian and African communities use spaces for public and community events which promote social inclusion”.40

21.The role of parks in community integration was raised by many: for example the Friends of Page Park told us:

The park breaks down the barriers of ignorance and fear, it’s somewhere we can all enjoy and our children can play together. Our parks and open spaces are vital in bringing our communities together and acceptance of our different ways we live, accepting the different religions and ways of others.41

22.Many of those who responded to our survey described their parks as being at the heart of their communities, and places where they could meet and connect with people whom they otherwise would not encounter. ukactive stated that parks “provide areas for physical activity, play, social gatherings, as well as helping to define the cultural identity of many neighbourhoods, towns and cities”.42 Imogen Taylor, a member of 38 Degrees, told us:

I live on my own, and sometimes I do not know if I will see anyone all day, but I go to the park most days, and I generally get chatting with people. [ … ] Last year, one time, I took some balls to throw for my dogs, and I ended up sitting on the grass while some East European boys threw the balls for my dogs. That was quite a positive thing.43

Similarly, the Sport and Recreation Alliance highlighted the role which parks can play in reducing social isolation. It described the activities of a local Green Gym, which brought volunteers from the local community with people with learning disabilities, with mental ill health, or who have experienced strokes together to create a community and wildlife garden. The result was “an engaging space and also helped people to be less socially isolated, be more active and have improved self-esteem”.44

Biodiversity and access to nature

23.The need for parks to act as “vital green corridors and stepping stones to enable wildlife to move around within their territory” has been heightened by increasing urbanisation, reduced greenspace, and smaller gardens.45 The Conservation Volunteers noted that parks and green spaces “support vital biodiversity, such as threatened pollinators, which are key to our food supply and vital to supporting our food economy”.46 The Friends of Victoria Park Leicester similarly underlined the benefits of parks as habitats for urban wildlife:

As urban living becomes more concentrated and intense, the casualties include different forms of wildlife. Many of their habitats have been lost as green spaces go and land is increasingly brought into use as housing, roads, or for industry. [ … ] Our own park now has bird boxes, bat boxes, homes for owls, bug hotels, and an area of the park designated as an ecological zone to encourage natural growth and wildlife.47

24.Parks and green spaces, particularly those in urban areas, are vital for providing access to nature and opportunities for people to enjoy wildlife. Some witnesses emphasised the importance of building a connection with nature from a young age:

Parks with lakes and ponds provide children with a wonderful introduction to nature from feeding the ducks and other water birds. Parks with even small areas of trees and shrubs offer the opportunity to learn about nature in many ways—the changing seasons, leaves and seeds or fruits. Probably most people’s first introduction to nature comes from collecting conkers!48

The Froglife Trust told us that “Parks with well managed wildlife areas are invaluable as outdoor learning resources, these can be used by local schools, youth groups, families and others”.49 This is particularly important for deprived urban communities, who may otherwise encounter barriers to access, such as the distance from the countryside or the cost of transport.50

Local economy and growth

25.Cllr Lisa Trickett of Birmingham City Council emphasised the importance of parks to sustainable growth:

Where we have cities—and cities are going to be the engines of growth over the next decade—what we have to look at is our green space, our park space. It is a fundamental part of the growth of our cities, and unless we see green space alongside grey space, such as roads, and blue space, such as rivers and canals, we will not have inclusive sustainable growth in our cities.51

The Birmingham and Black Country Local Nature Partnership agreed, stating that parks “play an important role in retaining investment and jobs, encouraging inward investment and providing for attractive environments which also benefit the health and wellbeing of communities”.52

Climate change and the environment

26.Parks and urban green spaces are likely to play an increasingly important role as part of our urban infrastructure, not least because of their potential to absorb excess rainwater as part of sustainable urban drainage systems, and the ability of their plants and trees to act as “natural air conditioning” during heatwaves or dry spells.53 Staffordshire County Council stated that its parks and green spaces provide “a range of benefits beyond [their] recreational value. These include natural or ‘ecosystem’ services such as flood regulation, water quality regulation, carbon storage, wild species diversity, etc”.54 Public Health England similarly highlighted the positive impact of parks and green spaces on air quality, water quality, noise absorption, and flood risk mitigation. Public Health England is clear that the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect—the higher temperatures in towns and cities as a result of overheating caused by buildings and roads, exacerbated by the properties of urban building materials and a lack of moisture—may have:

significant impacts on health as extreme temperatures contribute directly to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, particularly among elderly people. A retrospective study of the attribution of UHI to heat related mortality in the West Midlands during the heatwave of August 2003, suggested that UHIs contributed around 50% of the total heat related mortality. Natural spaces such as city parks can alleviate these factors, and provide localised cooling and shading for park users.55

27.Mrs Michelle Furtado, an environment and sustainability consultant, told us that parks and green spaces can cool the urban environment by as much as 2–8°C.56 The London Tree Officers Association highlighted the role which trees can play in “‘diluting’ concentrations of atmospheric pollutants and mitigating overheated hotspots, and generally air conditioning our city. Green open spaces are often accurately referred to as the green lungs of the city”.57

28.In addition to combating the UHI effect, parks can be effective in mitigating flood risk by “acting as holding areas for water run-off and reducing flow through non-permeable surfaces”.58 The Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature project cited research which showed that following heavy rainfall approximately 10 per cent of rainwater may exit a park as surface run-off, whereas 55 per cent of rainwater may run-off from a highly urbanised city-centre location with impermeable surfaces.59 Parks and green spaces, in addition to helping to reduce the impact of flood damage by absorbing run-off water, may be less expensive to construct or maintain than conventional flood defences.60 Urban green spaces and parks, particularly those containing trees or woodland, help to improve air quality by absorbing pollutants and releasing oxygen. The positive effect can be particularly strong in urban areas where trees are “close to sources of pollution and nearer to people who might be affected”.61

The diverse role of parks

29.The evidence that we have received clearly shows that while parks are diverse, varying in size, scale and scope, all parks are greatly valued by their communities. Different spaces may be used for different purposes, but what they have in common is how much they contribute to a wide range of policy objectives and agendas. Parks are an essential part of our contemporary urban infrastructure. In addition to providing spaces for people to exercise and relax, they provide environmental services, including water filtration, flood protection, and climate change mitigation.62 We strongly agree with those who have emphasised the importance and value of parks to individuals, communities, and to wider national agendas such as public health, and climate change and flood risk mitigation. Parks are a treasured public asset, which are greatly valued by their communities. They help to bring communities together, and should remain freely accessible to everyone. However, our essential green spaces may be under threat, as we will explore in more detail in Chapter 3.

Assessing the value of parks

30.The Parks Alliance told us that “Parks deliver a range of benefits to society, but in our experience, these are not properly understood or acknowledged”.63 While the value of parks and green spaces as treasured community assets is indisputable, witnesses suggested that traditional accountancy methods focus on parks’ saleable value as physical assets,64 or on the operational costs associated with parks maintenance.65 This overlooks the wide range of benefits which parks provide, and can result in parks and green spaces being considered as financial liabilities to local authorities. We take a different view, and agree with Urban Pollinators Ltd that:

England’s parks are long term assets whose value can be measured on multiple scales: ecology and biodiversity, health and wellbeing, leisure and recreation, quality of place and attractiveness, and climate change adaptation and mitigation.66

31.For example, traditional accounting methods for assessing the value of parks and open spaces fail in our view to fully capture the impact of access to high-quality green space on physical and mental health. Such effects include reductions in the loss of productivity as a result of ill-health, and reductions in NHS waiting lists.67 The Land Trust highlighted research from the University of Exeter which concluded that green spaces in England contribute £2.2bn to public health. It also cited the conclusions of the UK Natural Environment Assessment that neglecting the UK’s ecosystems could result in an economic cost of £20bn per year, whereas caring for them properly could “add an extra £30bn a year to the UK’s economy”.68

32.We heard about one park, Mayesbrook Park in Barking, which has been intentionally re-landscaped to combat flooding and climate change, while still providing the amenity and leisure facilities people expect from their park.69 However, in the majority of cases, as Julia Thrift, Project and Operations Director at the Town and Country Planning Association, told us:

we know about all the benefits that green spaces and green infrastructure provide. They are providing that without us really trying. We are not designing, managing and maintaining green spaces for optimum value for society. We are piddling around doing this and that. If we really, really tried, the potential is enormous.70

We believe that assessing the value of parks in more nuanced and appropriate ways could assist local authorities in prioritising and targeting investment to yield the most effective benefits. For example, Rugby Borough Council, while noting that “Maintaining public sports pitches is a highly expensive use of taxpayers’ money with little or no outcome for the health of the wider community”, suggested that thinking instead about parks in terms of their wider contribution to physical activity and public health outcomes could yield greater returns:

For example; every £1 spent on establishing healthy walking schemes the NHS could save £7.18. [ … ] £400K awarded by Sport England for a new 4G sports pitch could deliver much wider and better health outcomes if it was invested in a green space infrastructure instead. In our experience new play equipment, green gyms, measured miles or even just improved footpaths and more pleasant environments can increase the number of people getting outside and more active.71

33.Assessing the value of parks in terms of the health and other benefits which they can provide may also help local authorities to access sources of funding which have not previously been available. For example, Ian Walmsley of Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council told us that:

The value of parks to mental and physical wellbeing has been known for years, but they always seem somewhat abstract arguments, and are certainly not taken into account when we review the budgets. It is the parks budget that gets cut, and an argument has never been successfully made that if you spend x on a park, there will be a saving in the health budget, and therefore you should take the money out of the health budget and put it into parks. It just does not work.72

34.Quantifying the value of the contribution of parks and green spaces to the public health agenda could therefore help to provide evidence for money allocated by the NHS to preventative health initiatives or to public health to be invested in parks infrastructure, maintenance or programmes.73 Similarly, assessing the value of parks in terms of their synergies with green infrastructure planning or water management can highlight their contribution to community resilience against, for example, flooding.74 Andrew Hinchley from the London Borough of Camden told us that “We are starting to understand much better the variety of roles that our parks play. Those parks departments, in a way, need to evolve into more of a green space management function, and learn new ways of valuing, sharing and advocating, if you like, the benefits of those spaces”.75 This, in turn, could assist local authorities to access private finance: “For example, if the quality of the local water supply is sustained or improved by the environmental protections parks confer then water companies could be asked to contribute a one-off payment or continuous stream of payments which can be used to fund maintenance and upkeep of the park”.76

35.We recognise that parks have traditionally been seen as financial liabilities for local authorities, and understand that assessing the value of parks to their communities in wider terms can be complex. However, we strongly believe that without being able to demonstrate the contribution made by parks to broader agendas, local authority parks departments will find it difficult to secure sufficient priority for their parks, or to access alternative funding sources. For this reason, we welcome the new models which are emerging to help assess the value of parks’ broader contributions in a more nuanced way.

36.Many of those who responded to our call for evidence highlighted work undertaken by Edinburgh City Council to measure the outcomes of spending on its parks services. Edinburgh City Council has employed a social return on investment model which assessed the “social, environmental and economic benefits that a service or activity delivers”. In relation to parks, this model concluded that for every £1 of investment, around £12 of benefits are delivered.77 Peter Neal, independent landscape consultant and author of the State of the UK Public Parks reports, told us that this rises to £17 of benefits per £1 invested in the city’s premier central parks.78

37.As part of its work with Sheffield City Council, the National Trust commissioned Vivid Economics to use a natural capital accounting approach to capture the overall economic, social and environmental value of Sheffield’s public parks and green spaces. Sheffield City Council’s balance sheet currently shows its parks as a £16 million liability. However, the model found that the contribution of parks and green spaces was worth £34 to the city for every £1 spent. Ellie Robinson, Assistant Director of External Affairs at the National Trust emphasised that the assumptions underpinning the model were based on “cautious estimates”.79 Indeed, when we met Vivid Economics during our visit to Newcastle, we heard that the model had been updated, and now suggested that the return was £36 for every £1 invested. The National Trust concluded that the model demonstrated the “true value of the parks to the people of Sheffield”. In addition, stakeholders would be able to be more involved in investment decisions, which in turn would more effectively target resources in areas of greatest impact:

These accounts may now be used to inform the parks management strategy, health services providers’ engagement with the future of parks services, funding arrangements and institutional arrangements for the future of the parks service.80

38.Eddie Curry, Chair of the Core Cities Parks and Greenspaces Group, told us that work was still in progress to develop models such as natural capital accounting to assist local authorities to assess the value of their parks. He described it as “a model that still needs to mature”, but highlighted the lack of “any real advocate and voice for parks at a national level to get that message out and keep it consistently in the public eye and the political viewpoint”.81 Similarly, while welcoming the emergence of models such as natural capital accounting to assess the value of parks, Julia Thrift of the Town and Country Planning Association told us that:

I am worried about the little district authorities, who have one person who is supposed to be facing the local community and meeting its needs, and understanding some of this new economic thinking. Will they really be able to do all of that, too? Vivid Economics are doing some fantastic work, but you cannot expect the local park manager to understand how to turn that theoretical economics into money for their park.82

39.The amenity and leisure value of parks is important and should not be overlooked. However, taken in isolation, this value does not accurately reflect either the wider value and purpose of parks or the full contribution they make to local and national agendas. We believe that thinking differently about how to assess the value of parks and their broader contribution could help both to access alternative funding sources and to target investment more effectively. However, the models which are emerging, such as natural capital accounting and social return on investment are complex, and may not be accessible to local authority parks departments. The Minister’s cross-departmental group83 should prioritise support for the development of robust and accessible transferrable models which local authorities in England can use to assess the value of their parks. The Minister’s group should work with the Local Government Association to support and encourage local authorities to use such models to assess the real value of their parks, and to take account of such assessments in their strategic planning and prioritisation.

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19 Heritage Lottery Fund, State of UK Public Parks 2016 (September 2016)

20 Fields in Trust, Nearly 1 in 5 believe local park threatened (November 2015)

21 Q3 [Baxter McLewin-Freund]

22 Play Wales (PKS185)

23 Field Studies Council (PKS055)

24 See, for example, Play Wales (PKS185), Little Forest Folk (PKS228), or Playboard NI (PKS279)

25 Mrs Julia Trocme-Latter (PKS085)

26 ResPublica (PKS149)

27 Mr Ruari Muir (PKS098)

28 Mind (PKS323)

29 Heather Martin (PKS249)

30 The Parks Alliance (PKS084)

31 Mr Christopher Worman MBE (PKS058)

32 OPENspace Research Centre, University of Edinburgh (PKS109)

33 Sue Clarke (PKS328)

34 That is travel involving physical activity rather than motorised transport.

35 Dr Lydia Plackett (PKS049)

36 Birmingham and Black Country Local Nature Partnership (PKS145)

37 University of Leeds (PKS156)

38 Friends of Mewsbrook Park (PKS072)

39 Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature (PKS322)

40 Dr Ian Mell (PKS187)

41 Friends of Page Park (PKS026)

42 ukactive (PKS320)

43 Q2 [Imogen Taylor]

44 Sport and Recreation Alliance (PKS186)

45 Dorset Local Nature Partnership (PKS294)

46 The Conservation Volunteers (PKS318)

47 Friends of Victoria Park Leicester (PKS223)

48 Mrs Stephanie Roberts (PKS107)

49 The Froglife Trust (PKS033)

50 Dorset Local Nature Partnership (PKS294)

51 Q41 [Cllr Trickett]

52 Birmingham and Black Country Local Nature Partnership (PKS145)

53 Urban Pollinators Ltd (PKS046)

54 Staffordshire County Council (PKS104)

55 Public Health England (PKS264)

56 Mrs Michelle Furtado (PKS134)

57 London Tree Officers Association (PKS060)

58 Mrs Michelle Furtado (PKS134)

59 Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature (PKS322)

60 The Conservation Volunteers (PKS318)

61 Leeds Parks and Green Spaces Forum (PKS286)

62 Mrs Meredith Whitten (PKS314)

63 The Parks Alliance (PKS084)

64 Leicestershire Local Access Forum (PKS015)

65 Professor Robert Lee (PKS250)

66 Urban Pollinators Ltd (PKS046)

67 Mr Christopher Worman MBE (PKS058)

68 The Land Trust (PKS136)

69 Mr Christopher Worman MBE (PKS058)

70 Q105 [Julia Thrift]

71 Rugby Borough Council (PKS241)

72 Q43 [Ian Walmsley]

73 Durham County Council (PKS135)

74 Arup (PKS297)

75 Q52 [Andrew Hinchley]

76 ResPublica (PKS149)

77 For example, PlayBoard NI (PKS279)

78 Q8 [Peter Neal]

79 Q8 [Ellie Robinson]

80 National Trust (PKS408)

81 Q111 [Eddie Curry]

82 Q98 [Julia Thrift]

83 The Minister’s cross-departmental group, and other issues relating to national coordination and leadership, are explored in more detail in Chapter 4.

7 February 2017