Barber on ... The ailing state of health parks

Since I have become disabled, I don't get to see that many parks. Knowle West Health Park in Bristol is an exception. It is the home of the South Bristol Dialysis Unit and I look out on this 4ha park three times a week.

I have always believed that public parks are a wonderful preventative medicine. They were first created under successive Victorian health acts and their ability to promote healthier lifestyles, essential to countering modern ailments such as stress and obesity, is now being actively pursued in many countries. Our own Government acknowledges that "quality green spaces have been shown to enhance physical and mental health and to benefit children and young people".

So why, just 10 years after its creation, is the health park at Knowle West struggling for survival? Statistics show that people living in Knowle West have poorer health than those in the rest of the city - their life expectancy is, on average, 10 years lower than in other areas. Yet the cafe in the new walk-in centre has closed and the centre itself is due to close in 2012. The community-interest company running the park has to struggle for every penny to run its excellent programmes.

Outside, the park has many of the elements you would expect in such a facility - a fitness trail, children's playground and walking paths. What it does not have is a decent landscape. The three buildings are spaced out from each other so the site is riddled with a web of roadways and car parks that could put children at risk.

The performance arena is a forlorn brick and concrete affair dominating the site, but little used. The tree cover is non-existent and there is no horticulture to add colour to the depressing scene.

I thought the creation of health parks as "healthy living centres" in poor neighbourhoods was a great idea. Only Britain, with its monolithic NHS, cynical Government and feeble local authorities, could get it so wrong. It looks like just one more lottery-plundering gimmick that nobody really believes in and nobody will champion. Shame.

- Alan Barber is a parks consultant.

- Comment at www.HorticultureWeek.co.uk


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