The benefits of community greenspace

Stacey Aplin, from the environmental community charity Groundwork, looks at how the pocket park revolution is transforming our local spaces.

Regular access to greenspace and the outdoors can bring communities together, improve an individual’s physical and mental well-being and reconnect them with nature.

Despite this, a recent report by Fields in Trust has revealed that one in five of us claim that our local greenspace or park is, or has been, under threat of being lost or developed on.

Every day, Groundwork sees the positive impact that green spaces have on people’s lives. We believe that people everywhere and of every age need places to treasure – whether it’s a bench for quiet reflection, a place to grow vegetables or somewhere for the kids to kick a football.

The facts are astonishing. A daily walk in the park reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 50 per cent. Residents in high ‘greenery’ environments are three times as likely to take frequent physical exercise as those in the lowest greenery category. Most of us treasure our green spaces – 91 per cent of us say they improve our quality of life.

But not everybody is getting the benefit of quality green space. Some communities are poorly served and some people are missing out. Local authorities coping with the ‘age of austerity’ are facing tough decisions on how to spend their available budgets, often deprioritising green space maintenance.

Yet, reduced access to outdoor space damages individuals, families and communities – and the number of us using local parks and open spaces is actually decreasing on an annual basis. Even more worryingly, a recent survey from Harvard University found that those who live near greenspace live longer and had a ‘lower chance of developing cancer or respiratory illnesses’.

Small spaces, big opportunities
Groundwork was established 35 years ago to help communities cope with change and work together to make their lives and neighbourhoods better. In our experience, the most effective way of doing this is by putting the power into their hands so they can have a greater say about how they want to shape their community. One of the ways in which communities in urban areas are being re-introduced to regular greenspace access is through the concept of pocket parks. Small, but perfectly formed, pocket parks are areas of land in busy cities that are built and designed to provide people with limited access to green space with a place to enjoy the benefits of regular access to the outdoors. Groundwork has been involved in many pocket park developments across the country, turning the smallest piece of land into something great.

A recent Department of Communities and Local Government initiative has helped pave the way for more pocket park developments. It was announced in February that successful community groups across the UK are to be awarded up to £15,000 each so that nearly 90 patches of disused land can be turned into pocket parks. This is following on from the successful Transform It scheme that was launched by former London Mayor Boris Johnson, in which Groundwork was responsible for creating 40 out of 100 pocket parks across the capital.

Peter Heberlet, programme director of Land for Groundwork, said: “Pocket Parks can provide a wide range of environmental and socio-economic benefits to communities when they are developed alongside them. They provide an environment where people can meet, socialise, have lunch and relax. As well as helping to contribute to the improvement of the health and well-being of people in local towns they also help to restore engendering pride in neighbourhoods.”

Over the last year Groundwork’s Design and Build Team have created two new Pocket Parks, one in Northwich Town Centre and a second at the iconic Wigan Pier, bth projects being small but key elements in the regeneration of these two towns.

Peter added: “Making use of what was previously neglected areas of land; our landscape architects and build team have made huge visual improvements to the local environment. Through high quality design they have created functional spaces for people to use and enjoy. It proves that small changes like these can really have an impact on so many different levels.”

Thinking outside the box
A recent report by the Parks Alliance found that seven out of ten parents with young children are concerned that council budget cuts will have a negative impact on parks and greenspaces, areas that might be their child’s only gateway to greenspace access. Around the same time, Persil launched ‘Dirt is Good’, a campaign to encourage parents to get their children out more, using the startling figure that three quarters of UK children spend less time outside than prison inmates.

‘Rethinking Parks’, a programme run by Nesta, Big Lottery Fund and Heritage Lottery Fund, has sought to find innovative ways to sustain and maintain UK parks by introducing different working models to test which were most successful.

One of the projects involved was ‘Darlington Rethinking Parks’, a project run in the North East by Groundwork that encouraged and enlisted local businesses to volunteer to improve local parks by offering hands-on support to local friends groups to create a stronger bond of corporate and social responsibility. ‘ParkHack’ in Hackney, London, also focused on how businesses can contribute to the sustainability of local parks, through a team of ‘ParkHack Innovators’ who led the development of new business friendly facilities in parks, including a tree-house workspace.

Graham Duxbury, chief executive of Groundwork UK, said: “At Groundwork, we see first-hand the positive effect that comes from shaking up the status quo and allowing communities and local people make decisions and shape their local services.

“By giving local people the skills, support and resources to make a practical difference to their local area, they are naturally more engaged and committed to ensuring it’s vibrant and well-maintained. This pioneering approach to putting local people in control and making the most of scarce resources has never been more needed.”

The power of community spirit
One project that is providing these benefits to local people is Mobile City Garden, a mobile community garden based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park site in Stratford, East London, that opened in July 2015. The garden relocates around the park, providing nearby communities with the opportunity to utilise the garden, with Groundwork offering the opportunity for volunteers to get involved, with the option of securing various AQA qualifications.

This space proves valuable for residents, many of whom live in houses and flats that do not have gardens due to lack of space or other necessities such as parking taking priority.

Sophia Bromfield, Groundwork’s senior projects co-ordinator, said: “During my time managing Mobile City Garden I have seen the site change from an unused construction site to a wonderful thriving community space. In an area where most households don’t have their own garden, it’s an invaluable resource for the local residents and provides an amazing opportunity for people of all ages to get active outdoors and get gardening.

“On a daily basis we have a range of people from all different backgrounds using the garden for a variety of different reasons. Some people come in to learn new skills, either formally through AQAs or workshops or just by helping out, others to meet their neighbours and others just use it as a space to get outside and get some fresh air. Outdoor activity is vital for the health and well-being of people and ultimately helps to create and shape a healthy and vibrant community.”

CDA (Community Development Action) Herts St Albans Community Garden is another project that allows people of all ages, genders and backgrounds to come together, providing them both regular access to greenspace and a space to grow as a community.

Christine Marim, trustee and CDA volunteer, said: “So many different types of people benefit so much from the garden – it’s a wonderful feeling. It’s been a great way of bringing communities together. We have many community groups who use the space including the Hertfordshire Asian Women’s Association, Mind in Mid Herts and the Adult Learning Group of St Albans and a childminders group. The garden allows different groups of people who wouldn’t normally get to meet each other to get together and have a natter and enjoy the space.”

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