This was one of several themes that came out of a round table held by The Parks Alliance in London on 22 January. The wide-ranging discussion was hosted by the Landscape Institute chaired by Horticulture Week editor Kate Lowe. It featured contributions from representatives across the sector, including the Land Trust, the Fabian Society, Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Federation of Parks & Green Spaces, Nesta, Shared Assets and the Cross River Partnership.
The meeting was the first in a series of round tables being hosted by The Parks Alliance as it seeks to frame the conversation about the future of parks. Guest speaker Neil McCarthy, deputy chair of World Urban Parks, said many of the best ideas globally have come from unlikely sources outside the parks sector. Backing such people and letting them take risks has historically not been a strength of the UK's parks sector but will be essential going forward, he added.
All agreed that strong leadership is needed, though whether that would come from the public sector, a community uprising or a Joseph Paxton-like "messiah" figure is up for debate. Governance models that are tailored to their contexts are also essential, said McCarthy. "Funding models aren't just going to be philanthropic or rates-based or user pays. They are always linked to a governance model and to the context and society in which they sit."
There was also a call for those in attendance to leverage their relationships with people of influence, particularly those who have the ear of Government. Despite broad agreement that a tax-based funding model is still the ideal, most agreed that it is unlikely in this political climate and the sector is best directing its energy towards finding new forms of funding and governance.
But there is still plenty of appetite for trying to sell the value of parks - not only to politicians but other bodies that could gain financial and other benefits from green infrastructure, such as water or health providers. Peter Massini, principal policy officer for the Greater London Authority's environment team, said the critical question is how to convince those holding the purse strings to release the funds.
"It doesn't matter, in a sense, where the money comes from; the question is how to convince the various institutions - whether the Government, the community or others - to fund them. At the moment we don't sell parks strongly enough." Massini called for a more tactical approach to politics and for the sector to develop "a narrative that will convince people".
Most agreed that solutions to the crisis would be messy and chaotic, with new governance and funding arising from the unique situation of each park or community. A diverse range of governance and funding models should be encouraged, with the community being front and centre in each case. Maria Adebowale, director of the Living Space Project, said community groups are often the most invested in parks, giving their time for free, yet too often they are ignored.
"There are a lot of community groups from various classes and diverse backgrounds who feel locked out of these conversations. I don't think we need to sell the idea of parks; we need to listen to how people are willing to look after them and create a legacy in their local places," she added. "We need to make sure we are hearing about the new ideas, not thinking we have them all."
The Parks Alliance chairman Mark Camley agreed that the community gets left out and called for local people to be added to collaborations between the public and private sector to create a "three-legged stool". He added: "We need to actually stop preaching to the converted and look at how we take discussions forward to a wider and more diverse group - and do some listening."
The Parks Alliance plans to hold future round tables mirroring policy themes including health and activity, environmental sustainability and green infrastructure, parks management and possibly land sell-offs.