Rethinking Parks gears up for final report launch

The final Rethinking Parks report will be launched later this month, outlining the lessons learnt about new business models for parks in the face of funding cuts.

Final Rethinking Parks report launching this month. Image: Pixabay
Final Rethinking Parks report launching this month. Image: Pixabay

Rethinking Parks is a programme run by Nesta in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Lottery Fund. It saw 11 pilot projects from parks around the country given a share of a £1m grant so they could investigate different business models for parks. 

The programme ran from mid-2014. Over 18 months the various projects trialled their ideas and documented their progress. With the pilot stage of the programme now wrapped up, the projects have been analysed to see which ones are financially sustainable and to pull out lessons that other parks groups can use.

A meeting at Sheffield University in January called "Rethinking Parks in Partnership" gave a taster of the final report ahead of the big reveal on 25 February.

Programme manager Lydia Ragoonanan from Nesta praised those who had been involved in the pilot projects, which she said were "all about experimentation".

Giving funding to the projects meant the groups had space to try new things and take the time to see what worked and what didn't, she said.

"We knew the challenges you all face are quite severe but you don't necessarily have a big mandate to try out new things. Nesta as an organisation could help shoulder the risk."

The 11 projects covered five broad themes: public donations, engaging business, bringing in income from buildings, new forms of management, and focusing on the wider benefits.

There have been many takeaway lessons but one of the most promising signs is how many different groups are willing to get on board with the parks cause, Ragoonanan said.

"Sometimes within the parks community we feel like we're the only people feeling this problem but actually there's massive energy beyond the sector. The question is how to tap into it."

Ragoonanan added that the most successful projects had been those which listened carefully and worked with their target audiences to find out what they needed from their parks.

Consultant Peter Neal, who wrote the original Rethinking Parks report, said the project had been carried out in the middle of "a very challenging decade". But he said austerity is "the mother of innovation" and the achievements of the Rethinking Parks groups should be celebrated. The question now is how to push those models further and scale them up, he added.


Go to the Park Burnley, which introduced a range of 'wilding' measures to Burnley, was particularly praised. It is set to make savings of £100,000 per year through a range of small, environmentally-focused changes.

Burnley Council green space and amenities manager Simon Goff said: "I don't think Rethinking Parks is the answer to massive budget cuts but it will help the sector recover once it has adjusted. These are ideas that might be - in the future - a part of the normal bread and butter of parks. They might become our normal way of doing business, to still allow us to provide good quality parks."

Others projects are more slow-burning - among them, the National Trust's investigation of whether an endowment fund can be created for Sheffield's parks. The fund would require around £100m, drawn from stakeholders such as water companies, health providers, businesses and philanthropists, in order to be sustainable.

Of the 11 projects, the seven which have come the furthest and are most replicable have had model descriptors put online. These can be downloaded from the Rethinking Parks website.

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