A breath of fresh air

The arrival of a new coalition government is creating a very different landscape for public service delivery. Firstly we are facing a significant reduction in public expenditure and secondly we are seeing a fundamental shift to local decision making with a focus on devolution to councils, schools, GPs, business, communities and individuals. No longer will local government be accountable upwards to central government through national indicators and targets, inspection and intervention because we are entering a new era where local services will be more accountable to local people.

Improving well being

In this new landscape with a greater focus on efficiency, productivity and effectiveness, expenditure on services will increasingly be judged in terms of the contribution they are making to improve the outcomes that matter to local people; health and wellbeing, the local economy, community safety and a general sense of satisfaction with where people live. Our parks and green spaces are tangible examples.   

Over 33 million people use their local green spaces on a regular basis, making around three billion annual visits. 50 per cent of us visit a park or green space at least once a week and declare that this is to improve physical and mental health, enhance our relationships, chill out, interact with our communities and have a good time; no other aspect of our cultural lives can compare. It’s clear where our peoples’ commitments lie; if people are satisfied with their local parks, they tend to be satisfied with their council. 

Public health
There is a strong correlation between access to green space and public health; in urban areas people are more likely to rate their health as good if there is a safe and pleasant green space in their neighbourhood. Whilst all forms of exercise have potential health benefits, those that are taken in a green and pleasant outdoor environment are the most beneficial with a brisk walk every day in a park reducing the risk of heart attacks, strokes and diabetes by 50 per cent, fracture of the femur, colon cancer and breast cancer by 30 per cent and Alzheimer’s by 25 per cent. Increased survival of senior citizens is linked with increased space for walking; maintaining exercise and activity levels and exposure to green environments, supports intellectual and emotional wellbeing amongst the elderly, reducing and slowing the ravages of dementia and increasing their chances of continuing independent life in their own home.  

Obesity and related diseases is one of the biggest and fastest growing health issues, costing the NHS an estimated £4.2 billion a year, a figure that is forecast to more than double by 2050. The rising rate of childhood obesity is arguably more alarming and 80 per cent of obese children are likely to become obese adults. Recent work has shown that where people have good access to green space, they are 24 per cent more likely to be physically active and residents in high ‘greenery’ environments are 3.3 times more likely to take frequent physical exercise as those in the least green environments. Those who live furthest away from parks and green spaces are 27 per cent more likely to be overweight or obese.    
Environmental benefits
There are many other justifications for continued protection and investment in our urban green infrastructures. Climate change perhaps represents the greatest challenge for the future viability of our towns and cities and without their urban green infrastructures they stand little chance of satisfying our contemporary quality of life aspirations. They cool and clean the air, absorb pollutants, reduce carbon dioxide levels and produce oxygen and provide buffers against wind and cold. They filter and absorb rain water and control storm water run-off. But of course all of this relies on them staying healthy and green, when they themselves are feeling the impact of the change process. Maintaining healthy green space and supporting the rich biodiversity within them in the coming decades needs specialist skills and knowledge, innovative approaches to planting and investment in irrigations systems and rain water harvesting and storage.

Big Society is already happening
There are at least 4,000 community groups with a membership exceeding 500,000 actively and regularly contributing to the management and maintenance of their local green spaces, the work of these volunteers is valued at around £35 million per annum. There are in addition thousands of city farms, community gardens and allotment sites operating on a self-managed basis, and many thousands of groups getting involved in green space in a less formal, more casual and occasional basis. Their contribution has helped to improve, protect and enrich at least 15,000 green spaces of various types across at least 4,000 community areas.

Green space volunteering has successfully drawn in people from all walks of life, the young, the old, the socially disadvantaged and excluded; but that’s because these spaces mean so much to so many. They bring communities together, integrate generations, shape and define places, forever representing and reminding people of their cultural and social heritage. They revitalise, regenerate and refresh. Where good green space exists, people are more likely to know their neighbours, social webs are stronger and more cohesive, vulnerable members are less likely to live in isolation and fear of crime.

Even with this mass appeal and opportunities, for really positive and enjoyable volunteering, the contribution made can only ever enhance and support rather than replace the care, effort and endeavour of paid staff. Many of the representatives of the green space voluntary sector have passionately spoken out against the suggestion that they should do anything other than add to the efforts of skilled and professional dedicated staff. Reaching this level of engagement has not been easy; it has taken hard work and determined staff with appropriate skills. It has no doubt been worthwhile, with estimates that there has been a rate of return on investment of £4 for every £1 spent, but it has been resource intensive and the resources needed to take this to the next stage are not currently available.

What next
Not only do parks and green spaces need to show how they contribute to these local priority outcomes, they need to show they can do so productively. Simple advocacy needs to be supported by strong political and managerial leadership making a case based on evidence and past performance, capable of involving itself in key partnerships where priorities are defined and able to contribute to arguments about how local problems can be solved rather than why money should be spent on parks and green space. Managers and staff will need to better understand the new landscape they are working in, take responsibility for their own performance management and service improvement and show why investment in their services is what the community want and need. Managers will need to be open to finding and adopting quickly to new ways of working, working across traditional service and administrative boundaries, working in different delivery arrangements with private sector partners, in trusts and social enterprises and with voluntary and third sector partners and responding to a world of commissioning.    

Disinvestment in parks and green spaces makes no strategic or economic sense. Freely available, they support healthier lives, stronger communities and better places. At a time when there is likely to be growing unemployment, less disposable income, increased stress and anxiety and pressure on family groups, we should be reinvesting in parks as the remedy. Money could not be better spent and the failure to spend it will only result in burgeoning financial costs elsewhere, in health and wellbeing costs and environmental management and sustainability. The less tangible social cost could be much higher.

Dave Tibbatts is the General and Business Development Manager at GreenSpace, a registered charity which works to improve parks and green spaces by raising awareness, involving communities and creating skilled professionals.

For more information
Web: www.green-space.org.uk

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