The Parks Alliance seeks 'broad range of solutions' to parks crisis at its first major conference

The Future of Public Parks, Policy, Practice and Research conference boasts a multi-practitioner roll call of experts from park management and maintenance, academia, public policy, third sector and politics.

Roundhay Park is Leeds' most popular. Image: Nathan Booth/University of Leeds
Roundhay Park is Leeds' most popular. Image: Nathan Booth/University of Leeds

The event, organised in collaboration with the University of Leeds with the support of Historic England, idverde, Groundwork, the Leeds Social Science Institute and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, will bring together academics, parks managers, contractors and politicians on 13 July at the British Academy in central London.

The aim of the conference is to share research, experience and expertise and look for practical ways in which parks can survive and thrive well into the 21st century. 

The conference will examine:

  • Recommendations of the Communities and Local Government Committee in its parks inquiry report and how they might be implemented,
  • Insights from the Leeds Park Project which Leeds City Council Parks and Countryside Department partnered on,
  • Questions of health and well-being, social and educational use, community involvement and strategies for generating income.

The conference is aimed at policy-makers, practitioners, researchers, local authorities, the voluntary sector, think tanks and government.

University of Leicester academic and author of Historic England-published History of Public Park Funding and Management (1820–2010)  Dr Katy Latyon-Jones will open with an attempt to gather and map all the current and recent research going on into parks. 

Bradbury will chair a session on 'Maximising the Value of Parks' – looking at innovation and lessons from practice. Julia Thrift will chair the session on 'Public Parks – Ways Forward'.

Barker said: "We thought it was a timely opportunity given the inquiry and given our research, and it's beneficial to have a cross sector and cross practice dialogue about the questions facing parks in Leeds and nationally. We want to take forward ways of developing parks."

Bradbury said the conference brings together a wide variety of talent. "I don’t think there has been a parks conference that has the depth that this has in a very long time. We are really proud of it.

"I think what we’re trying to do is to bring practitioners and academics together. It wasn’t until I joined The Parks Alliance that I realised the work that goes on in academia supporting parks.

"We tend to congregate in our own groups. I think trying to get a sense of what future research could lead to in terms of improvements in parks, and what research collaborations, especially in academic and practitioners could mean – it’s a really good opportunity."

Before the snap general election was called, parks minister Andrew Percy had agreed to speak, and Bradbury said the conference team is "very hopeful" that he will be able to do so, now that he has won his seat and been re-instated in his old job at the Department of Communities and Local Government.

Percy gave many in the parks sector hope when he pledged to establish a cross-departmental group to examine the committee's findings and to release a small amount of transitional funding to support local councils developing alternative funding models.

Bradbury and Barker are encouraging Percy to use the conference to give some insight into his long-awaited response to the CLG’s report, published in February.

Publication was already overdue when the election was called, but if its appearance was to coincide with the conference, that would be ideal, Bradbury says.

Nevertheless the conference will have other research to dissect and discuss. The two-year Leeds Park Project has the effect of "knitting together past and present and saying something about the future," Barker said. The research looked at the history of parks and park usage in Leeds and asked questions about people’s expectations of parks both at the time they were created and today.

In total 6,432 people responded to the city wide survey and 91% of those who responded said they were park users. Some 37% chose a park that was not their neighbourhood park as their favourite. Leeds’ most popular park is Roundhay, which 61% said they had visited. "They are a widely-valued asset," Barker said.

"We have had the Victorian vision for parks. Given the challenges that parks face we are patterning out a more variegated future for parks. One of the things we found is that challenges that face parks are very acute for park managers but aren’t as noticeable for park users."

"People still hold quite positive expectations for the future of parks that they are going to be there long term and free to access. Their main hope is that they would continue to improve in terms of condition that they would continue to be free to access. Their main fear is over commercialisation."

Interestingly Barker said those respondents who did not use parks mostly had an issue with access, their health was too poor to get to the park or they were disabled, or their nearest park was hard to get to for them. "That opens up more research. We also found people chose to visit certain parks. We asked which favourite park and 37% chose not their closest."

She said there is a large body of academic work going on around parks because parks are interesting and they raise different issues, from human and environmental health to connections with crime – Barker herself is a doctor of criminology and criminal justice lecturer who started by researching the connection between public open space and crime before moving into more general research about parks.

"We could be better at talking to each other. One of the aims of this conference is to begin that dialogue. One of the things we are interested in is having that discussion about how research can contribute as part of the wider sustainability of parks," she said.

She said she hopes that the conference will usher in a new era of cross-discipline co-operation, praising TPA for the work it has done so far in gathering together the research that has already been done.

One of the CLCC’s parks inquiry report recommendations was that the minister's cross-departmental group works with the Local Government Association to establish and support a network of park manager forums in England. But the conference collaborators are not waiting for this. They are already talking about establishing a network for parks, and linking to existing networks, which would cut across academia, public policy, practitioners and organisations working in the management and governance of public parks and green spaces. 

"I really hope that this will be the case and this will be the start of a great dialogue between practitioners," Barker said.

Bradbury said the conference will "give parks managers a better ability to understand the breadth and the depth of the work that’ s going on and that insights and especially case studies would support parks managers, helping them understand how history can inform the future.

"It is understanding that if they are suffering from a series of challenges and opportunities somebody else had probably already done it. And it is also understanding that there is no one single 'fits all' solution, and that we are going to continue to need to have a broad range of solutions." 

Speakers at next month's event include:

  • Dr Anna Barker, Dr David Churchill and Dr Nathan Booth – University of Leeds
  • Professor Adam Crawford – director of the Leeds Social Sciences Institute
  • Matthew Bradbury – chair, The Parks Alliance.
  • Dr Katy Layton-Jones – University of Leicester
  • Jenifer White – national landscape advisor, Historic England
  • Anna Jorgensen – University of Sheffield
  • Andrew Smith – University of Westminster
  • Robin Smale – director Vivid Economics
  • Alistair Bayford – sales and operations director idverde and deputy chair of The Parks Alliance
  • Drew Bennellick – head of landscape and natural heritage, Heritage Lottery Fund
  • Mark Walton – co-founder Shared Assets
  • Clare Olver – Natural Health Service, Mersey Forest
  • Tony Stringwell – Parks and Countryside, Leeds City Council
  • Tony Durcan – assistant director, Newcastle City Council
  • Victoria Bradford-Keegan – project manager, National Trust
  • Sue Morgan – chief executive, Wandle Valley Regional Park Trust
  • Julia Thrift – chief executive Town and Country Planning Association
  • Eddie Curry – chair, Core Cities Parks and Greenspaces Group
  • Nick Temple-Heald – chief executive, idverde
  • Graham Duxbury – chief executive Groundwork
  • Sarah Royal – National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces
  • Ellie Robinson – assistant director of external affairs Ellie Robinson, The National Trust
  • Ken Worpole – Emeritus Professor, Cities Institute, London Metropolitan University

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