Parks programmes in UK are followed worldwide

Programmes such as Rethinking Parks and the London National Park City campaign are some of the best ideas coming out of the UK and are being closely followed around the world, according to a global parks expert.

World Urban Parks deputy chairman Neil McCarthy
World Urban Parks deputy chairman Neil McCarthy

World Urban Parks deputy chairman Neil McCarthy has extensive experience in the public sector in both urban and national parks bodies, including running the parks division of Australia's Parks Victoria, which has long been considered an ideal model.

Speaking to a round table hosted by The Parks Alliance, McCarthy said parks bodies worldwide are "desperately seeking to understand, mimic or co-opt" funding models that have been used in other countries, from the philanthropic model used in New York's Central Park to the endowment funding model of Cornwall Park in Auckland.

But different tax laws and societal context mean they are usually impossible to copy. Most are also dependent on the vision and passion of specific individuals - and in fact many projects struggle when visionary leaders move on.

The answer, then, is to find the people with "crazy" home-grown ideas and back them, said McCarthy. He was full of praise for the Rethinking Parks programme - spearheaded by Nesta, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Lottery Fund - which has given parks people a safety net to risk failure while exploring alternative funding.

Another key is to talk to people from outside the sector who have fresh ideas about the role of parks and the problems they can solve. He pointed to London's National Park City campaign, created by geographer Daniel Raven-Ellison, as a classic example of an outsider looking at things differently. "I think it's one of the greatest ideas that's been put forward. Even if it's never delivered, it has shaken the protected area network because it's actually redefining what parks are and going back to what National Parks were originally about."

Around the world the parks sector has been "endlessly pursuing the funding conundrum without a sense of closure or clarity", said McCarthy. He called for a change in the conversation. "It's clear nobody wishes to buy the parks product. If they did, we would be reasonably well funded. That's actually a real dilemma for us because when your product is still left on the shelf, what do you do?"

The usual rebuttal is that parks are a great product, leading to what McCarthy called the "value of parks syndrome" - producing copious reports into the economic and social value of parks in the hope that governments will recognise they are worthy of investment.

That work remains important, he added. Promoting the value of green space as a "natural health service", for example, is "absolutely" the right approach - but it tends not to result in Government funding.

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