Diversify income to avoid closure, Rethinking Parks report concludes

Having a diverse range of income sources will be the key to public parks remaining free and open, a new report published today by Nesta, Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Lottery Fund says.

Multiple income streams will help public parks stay free and open. Image: Pixabay
Multiple income streams will help public parks stay free and open. Image: Pixabay

The report, ‘Learning to Rethink Parks’, presents the lessons from Rethinking Parks, an 18-month programme designed to find and test ways for Britain’s parks to source new sustainable funding in the future.

Eleven UK parks received a share of £1m in grant funding and specialist support to explore new ways of raising income or reducing costs. Models tested included greater use of herbaceous and wild meadow planting, public donations, mobilising volunteers and friends groups to help with maintenance and even the creation of a pop-up meeting space.

While there is no one ‘silver bullet’ for replacing local authority funding, some promising new models emerged during the programme:

  • Burnley Go to the Park project involved moving from a culture of "controlling nature" to one of "working with nature", turning some areas of parks over to meadows and planting some traditional beds with perennials rather than annuals.  This has created savings of nearly £70,000 since its launch and is forecast to save the council £119,000 per year (10 per cent of their parks budget) by 2020. 
  • Bournemouth Parks Foundation has proved that people are willing to donate to public parks, including via text, projecting a donation stream of £46,000 a year by 2020/21.
  • The Heeley People’s Park subscription scheme has shown people will donate on an ongoing basis to their local park, demonstrating it is not just flagship parks that can tap into people’s willingness to give.
  • The Bristol ParkWork project worked with volunteers and saw 40 per cent of participants transitioning into employment and training, while delivering £27,000 worth of improvements to parks across the city.

However, despite these encouraging results, not all projects tested worked as planned, an expected result for an early-stage innovation programme. For example, Everton Park Community Hub found ‘Friends Groups’ are likely to require significant support, training and coordination to take a greater role in managing parks. Park Hack in Hoxton Square did not raise the income intended from an eye catching ‘Tree Office’ meeting space, but did mobilise local entrepreneurs and creative industries to contribute their ideas and energy to help the area’s green spaces.

With case studies and practical recommendations, Learning to Rethink Parks is a useful resource for a variety of stakeholders. Recommendations include: 

  • For parks teams: involve people – parks users, local businesses and residents, and others who care about parks – in designing and delivering new ideas. Then test these ideas with small-scale prototypes and look for external support to address skills gaps
  • For government and policy-makers: encourage innovation and appropriate risk taking across the sector by sharing good practice and making sufficient funding available to support innovation
  • For funders: emphasise funding models that focus on sustainability – like mixed grant/loan funds or endowments. 

Lydia Ragoonanan, programme manager of Rethinking Parks at Nesta, said: "Britain’s public parks need new sources of income and ways to reduce costs if they are to remain free and open. Rethinking Parks was designed to test ways to supplement existing funding. We now have a better understanding of the ideas with potential, as well as useful insights for the wider sector. Above all, the programme has shown us the importance of creating a space for parks to experiment, innovate and take chances."

Drew Bennellick, HLF head of landscape and natural heritage, said: "Parks are facing significant funding challenges and Rethinking Parks has shown there is no one solution to putting them on a sustainable footing. What we do know is that any change should be managed in a sensitive, constructive way that involves local people and local businesses.

"The case studies have demonstrated the need to be realistic about what we can and should expect local people to be able to do. Ultimately, local taxation is still an essential cornerstone for funding parks into the future but a diversification of income is also necessary if parks are to remain resilient into the future."

Dawn Austwick, chief executive at Big Lottery Fund, said: "Through this programme we wanted to encourage parks, communities and local authorities to think creatively about how parks can thrive in the future. We all know that when a park is well cared for and the local community feels a sense of ownership it can be a vital community asset, and for some people the only accessible and safe outdoor space they have."

Many of the Rethinking Parks projects will continue into 2016, with funding from local authorities and/or new sources.

An event will be held this Thursday (25 February) in London to discuss the lessons learnt from the Rethinking Parks programme.

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