Parks have been lifelines for residents during the pandemic, but many face an uncertain future because of lost income.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our local parks have been lifelines for our local communities.
Whether for exercise, relaxation, socially distanced meetings with loved ones or improving mental wellbeing, they have played an important role in our daily lives.
Come rain or shine, our parks have been busy throughout, signifying a positive change in our attitude towards being active in the great British weather – a momentum that we, as leaders, must act upon if we are to address the stark inequalities highlighted by the pandemic.
While parks remained open, however, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on council parks services, which have lost most of their ability to generate income from visitor attractions, festivals, events and cafes. Our recently published research, co-funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, found forecast external income losses of between £87,000 and £8.8 million across our six case studies. The loss of in-kind volunteer contributions has also been significant, ranging between £12,000 and £1.56 million.
This comes as a further blow to services that have already borne the brunt of austerity, leading to increased reliance on commercial income, fees and charges.
This presents a challenge to park services and it is going to take time to return to previous levels of income generation after COVID-19. However, exciting opportunities exist to enhance our parks and embed them in wider council-led ambitions.
“Parks provide a cheap and cost-effective way to get people active and boost wellbeing”
For example, as we invest the Government’s £2 billion for cycling and active travel, we must ensure that our parks and green spaces are fully connected to these plans and invested in. When connected up, these spaces can make a powerful contribution to tackling obesity and getting more people active, improving mental wellbeing, reducing our carbon footprint, and rejuvenating places into accessible, attractive places to live, work and play.
- 30 per cent more people were active during the first national lockdown (Sport England)
- 62 per cent of the adult population visited a green and natural space in October (Natural England)
- 42 per cent of adults said visiting green spaces has been more important to their wellbeing since COVID-19 (Natural England)
Our research shows how councils are working more collaboratively. In Plymouth City Council, for example, the pandemic has unlocked relationships between park services, highways and public health teams, resulting in system change that will be key to future developments.
Walsall’s park service is using public health funding to gather and understand the demographics of visitor counter data. The data shows a 40 per cent increase in the use of parks and green spaces, which is significant because up to 40 per cent of Walsall town centre residents do not have access to a garden.
Parks have undoubtedly shown their importance. They provide a cheap and cost-effective way to get people active, reduce obesity and boost mental wellbeing. At the same time, they can act as green corridors for wildlife, refuges for pollinators and sustainable drainage systems, and mitigate the impact of air pollution.
As we look to rebuild after COVID-19, we must ensure that these vital assets are fit for the future.
We are calling on the Government to introduce a local, flexible £500 million Green Parks Fund for councils, to invest in small-scale initiatives to help the nation’s parks and green spaces recover and flourish – and ensure a healthier, more active nation.