Demonstrating parks' myriad community benefits

Research backs case for investment in new green spaces to benefit local population.

Centenary Park: new facility created from redundant allotment site in deprived area in Newbold-on-Avon, Rugby
Centenary Park: new facility created from redundant allotment site in deprived area in Newbold-on-Avon, Rugby

To a sector hungry for data to prove what those on the front line of parks provision already know, a new report detailing the community benefits of a brand new park is likely to be welcomed. Centenary Park in Newbold-on-Avon, Rugby, was created from a redundant allotment site in a deprived area that had become a derelict site for fly tipping and abandoned cars.

The 2.7ha park opened in April 2016. Charity Fields in Trust, which secured legal protection from future development on the land, commissioned a case study from research company Substance that found most people visit the park for physical activity and it makes them feel better.

Just over 60 per cent said they visit the park once a week or more compared with 52.3 per cent who visited any park or green space before Centenary Park opened. Three times as many people visit parks daily after the opening than before, while 65.4 per cent said they walk to the park, up from 44.4 per cent before the opening.

Some 71.4 per cent said using the play area is one of the top reasons for visiting, while 27.6 per cent cited using the multi-use games area and the same percentage being in a natural environment. Fifty per cent said they access nature more than before the park opened and 17.5 per cent have done volunteer work for the park, valued at £60 per person at living wage rates. More than 90 per cent of respondents said they are either satisfied or very satisfied with their visit and more than 60 per cent said they feel happier and better about themselves since the park opened.

Rugby Borough Council head of parks Chris Worman says: "I think the report is vital. What's happening here is that local people are walking to their local green space and becoming fitter. It demonstrates quite clearly that the huge benefits for the nation's health that green spaces can bring."

Fields in Trust chief executive Helen Griffiths agrees. "It's a really good piece of work to support that need for local good-quality spaces." She says sometimes there is a tendency for people to think that big statement parks could be all things to all people but the value of a community park cannot be underestimated.

Worman points out that the report shows the outcomes that can be gained from spending money on green space are better than those from spending on specific sports projects. Griffiths says the Government puts "a disproportionate investment" into sports to try and tackle the nation's obesity crisis, focusing on formal sporting activities. In common with parks managers up and down the country, the trust believes it is time to revalue parks and green spaces as resources that contribute to public health, mental well-being and community cohesion.

"What we see from the Centenary Park report is there is a wider demographic using that park. If you're not fit, you're probably not looking to join a five-a-side football team," says Griffiths. However, features of the park, such as trim trails and a green gym allow people to get more active it their own pace, particularly if they felt there were barriers to getting involved in sport or exercise in the past.

She says the report is a really detailed examination of the contribution the space has made to the community. "It gives a great deal of detail around how that green space makes people feel and happier and healthier. It's a very useful tool to be able to show how green spaces can help to achieve these outcomes."

The research was undertaken last year but Fields in Trust chose to publish at the same time as the recent Communities & Local Government Committee parks inquiry report, something that got the report, and its findings, a lot of press attention. Worman was asked to share its results at an upcoming Association for Public Service Excellence parks conference in Knutsford, Cheshire. He says the sector has not been the best at collecting data in the past. "Here we've got a data set that makes it clear. I'm hoping that the Government will take notice".

Parks strategies

One of the committee report recommendations was for local authorities to create parks strategies with public health boards. Worman says strategies give a clear indication of parks' importance to a local authority and are key to attracting funding (see box). "When you look for funding people ask is it part of your strategic plan? By having the plan, other people take it seriously. Funders will say, how do we know it has political support?"

Also important was gaining a Green Flag for the park as soon as possible and getting the park protected by Fields in Trust. "To funders we said we will deliver a quality park and the benchmark for that is a Green Flag," says Worman, who last month collected his MBE for services to parks and the Green Flag programme. "If someone is going to give you £100K towards a project they want to make sure that investment is protected."

The Fields in Trust protection was also useful in getting community backing. The report quotes green spaces officer Chris Horton saying this "reassured the community - to say this is a park, a facility for the community and it will always be that. It was key and it did help improve the relationship with the local community."

Although Rugby's 10-year green spaces strategy pre-dated public health boards, Worman says his department had existing close relationships with public health and other organisations that were key to the success of the park. For example, the green gym was paid for by a Public Health Warwickshire grant. The report points out that its agenda - to encourage physical activity and mental well-being and to combat loneliness and social isolation - had several points of connection with Rugby's parks strategy.

Physical and mental well-being

Fran Poole of Public Health Warwickshire is quoted in the report: "People need safe green spaces to get more physically active and spend their leisure time there. It's good for mental well-being. My boss would say if he didn't have any money the one thing that he should still commit to is physical activity because it minimises the risk of so many diseases in later life."

The strategy was written in "a flexible way", says Worman, allowing his department to be creative in finding funding. "It's taking the opportunity to do things differently. That doesn't seem like rocket science but in local government sometimes it seems like it could be".

It was not only funding for which Worman's department needed partners. He worked closely with Newbolt & Avon Community Partnership from 2013 to help develop the park.

The report makes clear that the association's connections - with the local church, community centre and Riverside Primary School - were vital. The schoolchildren were seen as key stakeholders. They chose the name of the park and helped to plant trees there. Sue Dutton of Riverside Primary says the school felt that children were not as active as they could be and "anything that encourages them to be more active, enjoy outdoor life and respect it is great, and is part of our vision".

The association, which considered children's play areas a top priority, held meetings with residents followed by door-to-door surveys that informed the park's masterplan. The design was then brought back to residents for consultation. This meant the community got the park they wanted and Worman's department saved money during straightened times. "It was the community itself that delivered the consultation," says Worman. "It's about working differently and going with the opportunities that arise. We couldn't have done it without them, to be fair."

Green spaces officer Colin Horton says in the report that the level of support from the community "was quite incredible really - 95 per cent approval sometimes". Claire Edwards of the Community Partnership says the park "helped turn around the cynicism of a lot of residents who felt they had been abandoned by the local authority, who were making decisions that weren't for them."

- Fields in Trust Centenary Park case study is available at www.bit.ly/FITcentenaryparkreport.

Key facts - Financing for new park

- The park cost £450,000 to create.

- £100,000 from Veolia.

- £35,000 from SUEZ (formerly CITA).

- £75,000 from WREN.

- Trees donated by The Woodland Trust.

- Green gym donated by Public Health Warwickshire.

- Rest council capital funding and donations in kind.


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