Following the release of several new pieces of research relating to parks and green spaces over recent days, in our latest blog Fields in Trust Chief Executive, Helen Griffiths, gives her thoughts on the findings and reflects on the importance of acting on them now.
“People need parks…”, so said Robert Jenrick MP, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government at a Downing Street Covid-19 briefing in April.
Throughout the period of the coronavirus lockdown and over the summer a newfound understanding of the value of parks and green spaces has reflected their importance as places to exercise and relax; safe places to meet friends and reconnect with community. Green spaces have played a vital role in supporting our health and wellbeing during the crisis and they will be crucial to our recovery.
Whilst we all instinctively know that green spaces are good, over this last summer an intense interest in parks has seen researchers gathering data on the way parks in cities, towns and villages across the UK have been cherished. In recent weeks, several reports sharing new usage and perception data have been published and this article considers these new studies. We at Fields in Trust have been working with colleagues across the sector and with landowners and local authorities to develop an evidence-led strategy to ensure equity of access to parks and green spaces and we are committed to implement practical solutions to the questions raised in several new reports.
Friends of the Earth
A new report from Friends of the Earth – England’s Green Space Gap – details unequal access to green space and particularly a strong correlation between green space deprivation and ethnicity. Their core finding is that a person from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) community is more than twice as likely as a white person to live in an area which is deprived of access to green space. These are precisely the communities which our 2018 study Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces identified as ascribing a greater value to green spaces than the average population, yet inequity of access is disproportionate in these communities.
The Friends of the Earth report generously acknowledges that Fields in Trust pioneered the use of green space mapping with our annual Green Space Index. Over the last two years we have presented a barometer of publicly accessible park and green space provision with analyses of their impact and, in partnership with the Co-op, the 2020 release forecasts that the situation is likely to deteriorate if we do not act to protect parks and green spaces now.
Presenting data from a YouGov survey conducted in August, The Ramblers published The Grass isn’t Greener for Everyone which reports, almost in real time, on the public’s changing relationship with green space as a result of the pandemic. The report highlights that across the UK, we did not all experience lockdown equally. People from BAME backgrounds are significantly less likely to have good access to green spaces. The Ramblers are calling on Government to guarantee that no one lives more than a five-minute walk from a green space, by requiring national targets for access to nature.
Evidence has long shown that poor access to green space is bad for our health, both physically and mentally, and that it widens the gap in health outcomes between the richest and poorest in society. This is a point that Fields in Trust are focussing on in our data-driven approach to legally protect parks and green spaces in locations where we identify the most acute strategic need.
It is positive to see The Ramblers finding that, looking forward, people intend to walk more in future, particularly for leisure and to improve health and wellbeing, however this is only an option if the parks and green spaces close to home are protected from development and not lost to new building.
In their report Greener Recovery: Delivering a sustainable recovery from Covid-19, the Landscape Institute take a forward-looking approach which urges the UK Government to use the post-Covid-19 recovery to ‘level up’ access to parks and green space. They identify that in England black people are nearly four times as likely as white people to have no access to outdoor space at home, exacerbating the limited access to public green space reported by both Friends of the Earth and The Ramblers. The Landscape Institute also call for the introduction of clear rules and new green space standards “to avoid a ‘race to the bottom’ in planning laws”, a sentiment that we at Fields in Trust heartily endorse: our Guidance for Outdoor Sport and Play has been published in various forms since the 1930s – it is widely used by local authorities and we would support its adoption into wider planning standards.
In a thoughtful analysis, earlier in the month Groundwork’s Growing Spaces: Community hubs and their role in recovery reported on the social role that green spaces play within their local communities. Reflecting how the Covid-19 crisis has affected the way people have engaged with their neighbourhoods through local volunteering and ‘mutual aid’, support and emergency response. Groundwork address a “whole system” approach. This identifies parks and green spaces not simply as a nice place to visit, for a walk or to enjoy nature, but as a vital part of ‘social infrastructure’ in making neighbourhoods good places to live, by providing the networks and services that keep people well and connected.
Revealing the bigger picture
A close reading of each of these reports would uncover some differences of approach in the way each organisation chooses to collect, analyse and present data. For example, our Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces research used a Wellbeing Value methodology based on measurements of life satisfaction to identify the impact on individual park users. Others, including The Landscape Institute, adopt a natural capital value methodology to monitor the full impact of the green space on carbon capture, air quality and flood alleviation.
The Ramblers use a five-minute walk as a policy metric whilth we have adopted a ten-minute walk to take account of the different situation of rural and urban populations UK-wide. Similarly, we present our results based on different geographic divisions than the Friends of the Earth report does, and we chose not to rank local authorities with different communities and geographies against each other as the Friends of the Earth grading does. Our Green Space Index uses a multi-factor analysis to categorise provision and access within UK regions.
However, each of these nuances do not detract from the overwhelming evidence. The fine grain of this mosaic comes together to reveal the bigger picture with clarity: people living in more disadvantaged areas have less access to parks and green spaces close to home.
Taken together these four reports arriving in the same month add to already compelling data which, in different ways and with different emphasis is telling us what we already know. Green spaces are good, they do good and should be protected for good. Because once lost they are lost forever.
Time to act
I would never argue that we don’t need any more data nor that we’ve done all the research we need to do, but we are perhaps rapidly reaching the point where we all know enough about the benefits of parks and green spaces to now act on the evidence. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick MP, knew at that Downing Street briefing in April when he said: “While the virus does not discriminate, we know that the lockdown is much harder for people who don’t have a lot of living space, who don’t have a garden, and who don’t have anywhere for their children to run around”. This summer, people have voted with their feet and walked to their local parks – now it is time to act and ensure that all the evidence is backed up with solutions. Instead of being sold off, or built on, the UK’s parks and green spaces that serve the most disadvantaged communities must be legally protected in perpetuity. For health, for wellbeing and for community connections. As the Minister said: “people need parks”.
Helen Griffiths is Fields in Trust’s Chief Executive. She can be contacted by any of the below means.
t: 0207 427 2110
Helen Griffiths is Fields in Trust’s Chief Executive and is an experienced and knowledgeable commentator on issues related to parks, playing fields and recreational spaces. Follow Helen on Twitter @hegriffiths.