Analysis - Putting parks research into practice

As more studies confirm the value of parks, is it time for them to focus on advocacy? Jack Sidders asks.

A series of new research documents has been published over the past two weeks which add weight to an evidence base that could prove vital for parks managers in the fight to save their services.

Following the CABE Space study Community Green (HW, 9 July) comes its 10-point action plan Decent Homes for Decent Spaces, devised with the help of the National Housing Federation and more than 30 social landlords.

It seeks to improve the quality of open spaces within social housing areas after the Community Green report found they were shockingly under used because of their poor condition.

Advocating partnership working and the use of volunteers, it is an indication of CABE's attempt to chime with the ethos of the new Government.

"What we will be doing in light of the 'Big Society' is focusing on supporting community groups to be very active in green space," explains CABE director of public space Sarah Gaventa.

"One of the jobs of the new report was to help the green space message be understood by groups that work with deprivation. It's all around green space value and it's us trying to link with those wider agendas - we need to get other sectors to take it on board."

Coinciding with the publication of the CABE report is The People, Places and their Green Space, a new study from the Green Flag Awards (GFA) scheme.

This analysis of how 900 members of the public use green space divides them into four categories of user in a bid to help parks managers understand who is using the space and, therefore, how best to improve it.

Green Flag awards manager Paul Todd says: "These findings, the first of their kind in the UK, will play an important role in helping to shape our green spaces in the future. In addition, the report will influence how we raise the public's awareness of the Green Flag Award scheme and what they can expect when they visit a Green Flag Award-winning park or green space."

Parks consultants have welcomed the research, but many also complain that it is simply retreading familiar ground and raise concerns about advocacy. Parks consultant Alan Barber adds: "I am glad the Green Flag Award scheme, under its new management, is carrying out surveys, although I don't know that this one is telling us much new.

"The CABE research, however, gets to the heart of the matter. In a society of growing inequality, can we improve the lot of the poor and disadvantaged by improving their access to high-quality parks and green spaces?

"Unfortunately, this work shows both the strength and weaknesses of CABE.

They add wonderfully to our knowledge base, but they are reliant on advocacy to make use of it. Their advocacy is good, but too few make use of it. Too few politicians are listening.

"I believe CABE should link up with the BIG Lottery Fund to create a project in a selected area of most need that provides the best possible new park and monitors its influence on health and lifestyles. I visit just such an area three days a week, but the health park at its centre is too poorly designed and managed to have much effect. A bold initiative is called for, not just another leaflet."

Consultant Steward Harding agrees with Barber, arguing that the real issue is one of advocacy.

"I'm starting to think that everything that can usefully be researched about parks has been, and that the sector is just piling on more and more evidence in the hope that someone influential will actually read it and act upon it.

"This is the real challenge facing the sector - to get decision-makers to act on the mass of research evidence that has been accumulated over the past 10 years, and to treat parks as a priority in improving the general population's health and quality of life."

Gaventa challenges the accusation saying it was "less about advocacy and more about practical support - and we have done a huge amount of that".

She adds: "The job is not done - we have only just completed the first national survey on urban green space and it is so important to keep building that picture and to keep it up to date."

Consultant Sid Sullivan offers a different suggestion. He asks: "Is it not time to recognise the value and difference that social landlords bring to the environment and their community by introducing a Social Landlords Green Flag Award? Their manifesto covers much of the GFA criteria, and GFA is effectively an environmental management system (which is what lies at the heart of the social landlords manifesto).

"Such an award would recognise the differences of social landlords' situation. For example, much of their land is accessible only to tenants, but accessibility to the public is an important part of GFA generally - so a unique award could refine this requirement and others that do not fit the circumstances that social landlords manage in."

- To view the complete reports visit:


- More than 50 per cent of people visit a park at least once a week.

- Fear of crime, poor access (because of transport or a disability), litter and potential for boredom were given as reasons for people seldom visiting a park.

- Many respondents said the presence of a park keeper would greatly enhance their local green space.

- The most common activities visitors to parks and green spaces take part in include walking, playing with children, socialising, dog walking, feeding ducks, picnics/barbecues and unorganised sports activities.

1. Commit to quality
2. Involve residents
3. Know the big picture
4. Make the best use of funding
5. Design for local people
6. Develop training and skills
7. Maintain high standards
8. Make places feel safe
9. Promote healthy living
10. Prepare for climate change

For more research and resources supporting the case for parks, go to our Green Space Resource section.

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