The event was held in London following the publication of Learning to Rethink Parks, the culmination of two years of work by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the Big Lottery Fund and innovation foundation Nesta.
The experimental programme included a £1m fund to help parks groups test new models to help address budget cuts. The expectation was that people would feel free to try something new then share the lessons learnt, both successes and failures, with other parks around the country.
The 11 projects chosen have spent 18 months trialling their ideas, ranging from attracting public donations or getting more volunteers to using assets such as buildings for income and changing planting techniques.
While four of the projects are still being trialled, seven are far enough along to share what they have learnt with other parks. Extensive resources are available online, with parks stakeholders and interest groups encouraged to steal and adapt the best ideas for their own parks.
Nesta has also produced seven "habits for parks innovators" - a list of actions to ensure best practice in parks management.
Nesta's innovation lab director Dan Jones said a key finding from the programme was that "there isn't a way of replacing the money people used to have ... with a single income source". Rather combining different solutions is the best way to get parks on a good footing, he said.
He praised the groups for their willingness to take risks. "It's easy in a very constrained situation to batten down the hatches, put your hands over your head and hope everything will be alright," said Jones. "All the Rethinking Parks teams said 'No, we're not going to do that, we're going to try something new'."
Nesta's lead on Rethinking Parks, Lydia Ragoonanan, said: "The future is on a precipice and the significance of that threat is enormous," adding that parks are faced both by plummeting budgets and ever-increasing expectations of service standards. "But we think many of these ideas combined can make quite a significant contribution and stave off some of the dire cuts that are coming."
The seven projects fit into three key themes: how to convince people to donate, especially when parks are seen as a local authority responsibility; getting businesses to contribute to parks without them becoming overly commercialised; and finding the "sweet spots" - cost-cutting or income-creation measures that can also help to improve the park experience.
Ragoonanan said the report did not look at whether parks could fund themselves, but at the alternative funding that was available in the face of inevitable cuts. She added that local authority funding "will always be part of the mix" and called for people to use the report as part of their campaigning for parks.
HLF head of landscape Drew Bennelick said it was clear early on that lottery funding is creating "a two-tier system", with some parks thriving with lottery funding while less prominent parks suffer. The ideas from Rethinking Parks are intended to address that. "Through HLF we have funded about 800 public parks. This programme is going to help the 26,000 that we haven't been able to help so far."
HLF will use Rethinking Parks to inform its future work. Applications for funding are already coming in that have picked up and applied Rethinking Parks ideas, Bennelick added.
Case study ParkWork - getting volunteers into Bristol's parks
Bristol City Council and the Bristol Parks Forum formed ParkWork to find the best business model for getting people to volunteer in the city's parks.
Initially the programme approached employment agencies to find unemployed people who needed work experience to volunteer.
The social aspect of the pilot programme is a success - of 17 volunteers who have been through ParkWork, eight are now employed and one is in training. The council received 400-plus volunteer hours over seven months and ParkWork is projected to provide £27,000 of parks improvements in 2016-17, providing the council £2.40 back for each pound invested.
The costs of the programme such as training and support were expected to be covered by employment agency funding. However, the agencies offered minimal cash, forcing ParkWork to look for different income streams. Subcontracting to the council's landscape team has brought in money, but organisers are now faced with the difficulty of balancing time spent earning money to run the programme with time spent working for free for the council, as was originally intended. Other income streams are also being considered, including health prescribing, and ParkWork is talking to botanic gardens and wildlife trusts to learn from how they run their volunteer programmes.
Project leader Fraser Bridgeford said ParkWork has essentially been a success and will continue running. "It's now a living, breathing, branded thing that's employing (a volunteer coordinator). Agencies expect us to be there to take people and the Bristol Parks Forum fully supports it."
Case study Bloomsbury Squared - parks improvement district
Camden Borough Council trialled setting up a business improvement district (BID) but for parks - specifically nine squares around Bloomsbury. A compulsory levy could raise £1.2m to supplement local authority funding.
Initial research looked at who used each square - residents, local employees, tourists - and what they most valued. Red Lion Square was used as a prototype, testing different methods of reaching out to businesses, from fliers to an exhibition in a park-based cafe. The scheme was extended to all nine squares, with a community partnership formed to keep all stakeholders updated and allay residents' fears of commercialisation.
Finding incentives for businesses to invest was difficult. Place-shaping, branding opportunities and property value uplift did not appeal, but businesses were interested in volunteering opportunities, space for events, lunchtime use by employees and cutting antisocial behaviour. However, with many of the latter already on offer through existing BIDs, there was limited appetite for another levy. Decline is also not yet visible in the parks so it was hard to convince businesses of the problem.
Conclusion A parks BID did not work in Bloomsbury but could do elsewhere. The proposal must benefit businesses directly. A "business champion" would help convey ideas in business terms.
SEVEN HABITS FOR INNOVATORS
Follow these seven principles of successful parks innovators
Diversify income streams Local authority cash is always needed but cannot be the only income source. Many small changes can help put the sector in good stead. One of the most successful projects has been Burnley Go to the Park (above), where many small permaculture-based changes added up to around £100,000 per year.
Know your finances Without knowing your current position and where the money goes, it is hard to know which innovations will work. The parks sector is not known for its financial acumen, but you can draw on local authorities’ finance teams or volunteer networks if you lack skills.
Involve people The earlier and more often you involve people, the better you will understand
and spot opportunities. ParkHack created the TreeXOffice in Hackney after a public brainstorming event that found there was a lack of office space in the area. Ask the public what they think of new ideas and what they would change.
Work with others Partnerships draw on others’ networks and skills, bring new viewpoints and help bear risk, but require a more reciprocal way of working — both partners should benefit.
Test, adapt, repeat Launching prototypes seems risky but they are a low-cost way to test ideas in the field. The results are much richer than what you get from endless planning and cost less than launching a big change that nobody wants.
Be open Working in partnership with an outside charity or drawing on more volunteers, for example, means accepting you may not have as much say. The projects that have had the most success formed partnerships early on.
Secure the mandate The sector is excited about innovation but that can make councils nervous. Make sure political people are on board.
• Projects, reports and ways to apply the lessons from Rethinking Parks can be found online at www.nesta.org.uk/project/rethinking-parks.