A walk in the Park – rising to the challenge of managing our green spaces

Ward Search Dog at Bromley Park

Article as appeared in Local Government News in June

Local authorities across the UK are responsible for running and maintaining a vast acreage of public parks. These open spaces constitute a treasured part of our towns and cities, helping to provide precious areas for relaxation and recreation. But the challenges of maintaining them are considerable, not least in ensuring that they remain safe and attractive. David Ward, managing director of Ward Security, a company that specialises in patrolling public parks, considers both the challenges faced by those in charge of running our parks and the creative approaches needed for their future management.

In many cases, they are a legacy from our far-sighted Victorian forebears. But what can be done to ensure that the UK’s public parks prosper long into the 21st century?

Our publicly managed green spaces are a huge national asset. Between them, the UK’s local authorities are responsible for managing and maintaining tens of thousands of acres of parks and green spaces. In the Borough of Bromley alone there are 156 parks and open spaces covering 2,900 acres. In Northampton, the figure is 1,880 acres, in Solihull 1,500 acres. Wherever you are in the UK, there is work to be done to ensure that these gems remain a distinctive and beautiful part of our country’s landscape and streetscape.

It is no exaggeration to say that we are stewards of an inheritance that, properly managed, will provide pleasure, recreation and beauty for generations to come. But it has been recognised for some time that it’s not all a bed of roses for our publicly-run parks.

In October last year, a UK Public Parks Summit was held to examine the issues facing parks and to reverse a process of decline and neglect that had arisen over previous decades. £100 million of Lottery money was pledged to help give the UK’s parks a lift. The Parks for People scheme, run by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is now distributing grants of between £100,000 and £5 million.

But money alone isn’t enough, even if declining revenues and budget cuts are perhaps the main concerns of many park managers. Some of the issues surrounding park maintenance vary from town to town and from local authority to local authority. Within some local authorities, for example, parks open in the morning and close at dusk. Within other authorities, however, they are open around the clock, necessitating a different approach to their security and maintenance. However, some of the issues faced by those in charge of our parks are constant. First and foremost, the question that every council needs to answer is: are our parks and green spaces meeting the needs of our local community? Related to this is another question: are we providing a safe and inviting environment for our community?

Security is a fundamental consideration here, and local authorities need to consider what approach best suits their portfolio of parks. As well as warden patrols, are dog patrols needed too? The latter are becoming an increasingly frequent sight. In Bromley, for example, dog handlers are deployed to cover all of the borough council’s parks and open spaces. The use of such dogs has proved a very effective deterrent when it comes to preventing anti-social behaviour. Moreover, they are a reassuring presence to law-abiding park-users.

While parks are an attraction in their own right, a key component of their success is whether they are being used to stage events, be that music, sport or art displays. If a park has a strong list of forthcoming events, then it becomes a more central part of the local community’s focus. To help facilitate this, it is important that parks have clear licensing and application processes.

UK local authorities can pick up some tips in this regard from the management tactics adopted on the other side of the Atlantic. The City of New York Parks and Recreation Department makes a concerted effort to run on on-going programme of events across the estate it manages. It has an online calendar of events featuring everything from early morning yoga sessions and tai chi mornings to free summer concerts, bird walks, art exhibitions and free summer films. There are even model displays of a sustainably-built housing.

Moreover, in New York the ongoing vibrancy of its parks is linked to their environmental sustainability. The parks department has a campaign called MillionTreesNYC, which is an initiative to reforest the city’s parks. More than 750,000 trees have been planted as part of this campaign, with a Green Teens programme encouraging teenagers to become volunteer stewards of their local parks. As a way of protecting parks for future generations, this approach has much to recommend it.

This touches on another key theme. Volunteering has a significant role to play in the upkeep of parks. If residents can be engaged to help maintain the green spaces that are on their doorstep, then they are more likely to visit them and treat them respectfully.

But volunteering is only part of the answer. Parks are a central part of the public realm and like any part of the public realm the safety of the people who use it is of paramount importance. If the safety of a park falls into question, then the reputation of that park is badly undermined. This has been an issue in some parts of the UK for too long. Many park gates are locked at dusk because there has been a perception that they are dangerous places at night.

For generations, families have been the main users of parks. And if that is to continue, then those families need to be confident that they are safe whenever they visit the green spaces in their town. This brings us right back to the importance of local authorities getting their security procedures correct.

Innovation is therefore essential if a very traditional part of the UK’s townscape is to be not only retained but enhanced. Whether it be new activities, new approaches to preservation or new ways of ensuring the public is safe, the UK’s park managers need to think creatively to ensure the ongoing vitality of our green spaces.

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