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Dr Nicola Dempsey

This is the second of two blogs sharing the debate we held as part of the recent The Great Outdoors exhibition in the Winter Gardens, Sheffield.

Co-hosted with colleagues Jill Dickinson and Will Easdon at Sheffield Institute of Policy Studies, Sheffield Hallam University, we asked four speakers to debate the financial future of urban parks. The speakers were Councillor Mary Lea (Cabinet Member for Culture, Parks and Leisure, Sheffield City Council), Sue France (Green Estate which is custodian of Manor Fields Park), Peter Neal (landscape architect and environmental planner), Andy Jackson (Heeley Trust which is custodian of Heeley People’s Park). The debate was chaired by Dr Julian Dobson (Department of Landscape Architecture) who asked the following questions:

Friends reminiscing over historic photos of the parks they used to play in

Learning from the long period of disinvestment in the 1980-90s, what specific challenges does the loss of funding pose for the future of parks?

AJ: For a short time, we ran out of funding in Heeley People’s Park. For two weeks, we could not cut the grass or empty the bins. We saw a decade of work unravelling in those two weeks. It takes very little time for a park to become a liability, not an asset. In focusing on the crisis of we’ve got no money, we forget to look at the values that parks acquire. Trees grow over lifetimes. We need to think of our parks over the lifetime of a tree, not the duration of an election.

SF: It takes no time at all for a park to lose value. The cycle acts very fast. We have spent 10 years and million of pounds in developing a belief that you can be safe when you’re outside in tough neighbourhoods. That belief is crucial. But the minute you cut out all the things that get people outdoors, that belief goes.

We need a citywide vision: my fear is that we are going to focus on the cost-cutting with no view on how we are going to change things. Deciding on what we are going to focus on can then lead to the solutions. We can’t have neighbourhoods without any green space… but I can’t underestimate how important it is to stand out and come up with a plan.

ML: Austerity has had an impact. We have lost £400m since 2011, and there are more cuts to come. 30% of the parks budget has been lost. But we have got a £3m budget for parks including recently invested public health money with more coming in the future. We need to continue working with partners to bring facilities into parks, which is part of the council’s recently Building Better Parks programme, aimed at bringing in enough revenue from the parks to be self-sustaining.

PN: Revenue budgets underpin all other activities. There is a risk and timelag of the loss of revenue – some impacts are felt immediately but it takes longer to see the effect of the loss of knowledge and expertise. The skills are being eroded, particularly in leadership and management which has been hit the hardest by austerity. When you pare back the service as much as possible, it’s much harder to argue for more investment when you have the chance.

It’s a case of ‘here we go again’ where we are seeing another cycle of underinvestment. History should give us some reassurance that things will spring back…the number of user groups and friends groups of parks is rising which have ‘latent energy’. We have an asset base with an ecological landscape to drive opportunities for a new future for our parks.

Audience members listening to the speakers at “The Great Outdoors” debate

There’s a phrase: to “sweat the assets”, or generate income from green space. Where are the trade-offs, tipping points and where compromise will not be made?

ML: We are not selling off our parks – there will be no parks sold off. The Building Better Parks programme is identifying where facilities are needed in parks – e.g. Hillsborough Park does not have a café, while other similar-sized parks have very successful ones. It’s also about working in partnership to make parks such as Mather Road Park in Darnall an asset.

SF: You have to sweat the assets. Restore and use the buildings in parks. I’d build on the edge of parks if I can because I want to capture the values of parks in perpetuity. I have no problem running businesses in parks – of course, they have to be appropriate. There are lots of different design styles and we don’t need Victoriana in every place. Would we sell anywhere? Yes, where there is an overabundance of green space but it is not of good quality. The whole spatial pattern of green space needs to work well. It’s about having long-term strategies which allow the building up of an asset base so that places are activated and people have reasons to go.

AJ: I do not agree with running private events in parks which remove the public access. It’s fundamental that my local park does not have a gate to pay through and is open and accessible. But because of this, our approach is complicated. We have tried lots of approaches to cover ongoing revenue costs differently. 10% of our revenue budget comes from subscriptions. Our strategy is to transform and repurpose the big civic buildings with the lease linked to the park. The GS is then improved enough for people to want to come to live here. And you need a closed loop to do this: money from the asset must go to the park. We simply cannot operate on an “everything you get is paid for” model – it just doesn’t work.

PN: It’s a common trap that local councils fall into when austerity comes: you pare everything down and then you sweat the assets. This is completely the wrong way around. If you were a financial advisor, you’d say invest in the asset first and if you have a broad portfolio of assets, you can get wider and more far-reaching benefits. You host events to promote social benefit not just as a means of income generation: there has to be an objective beyond the income generation. It’s important not to overcook the commerciality of parks: they need a much more savvy business case. You have to draw the boundary of the park much wider than the park itself. 18th century (housing) development around parks was used to help make the parks self-sufficient.

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Dr Nicola Dempsey

I recently co-convened The Great Outdoors exhibition in the Winter Gardens, Sheffield with the Sheffield Institute of Policy Studies (Sheffield Hallam University), Drink Wise: Age Well and Sheffield City Council (Parks & Countryside). As part of this I hosted a debate on the future of urban parks with Hallam colleagues Jill Dickinson and Will Easdon.

People examining the large-scale maps showing over 830 Sheffield City Council-owned green spaces

Our four speakers were Councillor Mary Lea (Cabinet Member for Culture, Parks and Leisure, Sheffield City Council), Sue France (Green Estate which is custodian of Manor Fields Park), Peter Neal (landscape architect and environmental planner), Andy Jackson (Heeley Trust which is custodian of Heeley People’s Park). The debate was chaired by Dr Julian Dobson (Department of Landscape Architecture).

This is the first of two blogs sharing some of the debate…

L-R: Mary Lea, Sue France, Julian Dobson, Andy Jackson, Peter Neal

What is the future of urban parks – what should parks be and how can they be better?

PN: there are lessons from history, from the great Victorian parks, particularly in northern industrial cities – parks can do everything for everyone. Parks must be for people and are a central tool to social building & social opportunity in terms of social cohesion and the social life of a city driving smart growth, development and helping our collective response to climate change mitigation.

AJ: we need an ongoing and sustained income. The park is dynamic and changes, just as the people living around the park change. Our parks need to be beautiful and safe, vandalism must be dealt with immediately and litter cleared. The challenge is that while capital is difficult to achieve, securing revenue funding is almost impossible.

SF: we need a future with the ability and freedom to do long-term management – a future with partnership and relationships to be built on. Working locally in partnerships leads to some really good work and activity in parks which is directly related to how well respected parks are. We need to cherish the assets we have. There will be over 1000 new homes in Manor & Castle which will mean changing dynamics of the area and new people moving in. We therefore need to plan for the beautiful places and not just the good enough spaces. And a 4-degree change in temperature in Sheffield will mean flooding, fires and lots more people outdoors. This is going to dynamically change our places and the need to design for long-term resilience.

ML: our parks are crucial for our health and wellbeing. Parks have their part to play in how people live with long-term health problems. Parks are also places for social cohesion: parks are the places where people can join together. Parks are really good for the economy because people are attracted to cities which look after their parks and green spaces.

Who are the best people to look after the parks?

ML: the council is the accountable custodian of our parks.

SF: while the council has a responsibility to look after our parks, there are other custodians looking after green spaces. Our civic assets are a civic duty – within any local council, there should be custodians. The best custodians are passionate about them and that passion is needed in the council. Accountability for providing that civic duty is important. As long as there is partnership, and proper arrangements around accountability, lots of different organisations can help in the custodianship of parks.

AJ: I am really worried about the future of our parks. We need to continue having this debate about parks well into the future. Our responses to date to parks have been traditional and we need to think and act differently. The scale of the challenge is enormous. In other towns and cities where I’ve been to advise, staff are worried about their jobs, about closing parks, about how to keep their kit going. They were once proud and motivated custodians but the slow cutting away of the budgets means that those custodians are disappearing. An overall sense of civic pride is required – we need the fabric of green space in our cities. We need more and more resources to manage this. How we use our resources could be done really differently and could engage communities more.

PN: the situation of reducing parks budgets is familiar for most councils and most public services. The solutions are varied. Parks are an imprint of the hydrological, topographical, economic, environmental landscape….and it’s unique in every location. Is this a challenge of top-down versus bottom-up – an hourglass being turned upside down regularly…? There is not one solution to the problems.

Local councils needs a central leadership role in parks – parks are central to the agenda. And local councils are central but they can’t do it on their own. A single-minded focus on specific parks and places allows for the buy-in of partners across a city in terms of what a city does as a city.

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Playing the Archive Team

Playing the Archive: Memory, Community, and Mixed Reality Play, which is an ESPRC collaborative project, aims to explore the nature of play through the ages, and bring together archive material with modern technology. A key part of this project is to digitise and catalogue substantial sections of the Opie manuscript, held at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries.

The Sheffield cataloguing team are currently constructing the Place Name Authority in their catalogue of the Iona and Peter Opie Archive. This authority control, which assigns a unique identified to each topic, establishes a consistent way for places to be referenced in the archive. Once created, it will allow end users of the digital archive to search for information by place and enable the mapping of items of children’s folklore. Those familiar with the Opies’ books will recall the engaging maps they contain charting the distribution of such specifics as ‘spitting death’ and truce terms.

In order to include the locations of the schools from which the Opies drew much of their data, we have needed to delve into the books, to ensure that future users will be able to search for games and rhymes in places whose locations have altered – on paper at least – since the Opies first began collecting. Legislative changes to county boundaries since the Opies began their survey will impact on users of the digital archive searching for the childlore of a perhaps now obsolete area, or alternatively searching in a county incorporating places which were historically ‘elsewhere’. To address this, the digital archive will contain details of a place’s current county, and its county around the time data was collected.

The weighty volume pictured is Bartholomew’s Gazetteer of the British Isles, a topographical dictionary first published in the 1800s and regularly updated, and which features condensed but detailed information on the cities, towns and villages of Britain and Ireland.

The edition currently proving its worth to the cataloguing team is a 1966 reprint of the 1943 edition, including additional amendments and entries from the year of its publication. While it’s second nature to turn to the web for information these days, this compendium, contemporaneous with the period when the Opies were collecting, is helping us to identify the relevant counties. It’s the kind of reference book that we’re sure would also have been on the Opies’ bookshelf!

We are turning to the web to include longitude and latitude for each of the cities, towns and villages represented in the archive. These will amplify access to the rich and varied data gathered by the Opies and their ‘army’ of correspondents and collaborators.

A further task currently underway is the establishing of controlled vocabularies for defining attributes of the documents and the children’s folklore items contained within them. Joining the team last week in Sheffield was project consultant Steve Roud, a respected folklorist, writer and creator of the Roud Folk Song Index and author of The Lore of the Playground (2010). Drawing on his knowledge and expertise, he is creating a thesaurus by which we will index the items in the archive.

@playarchive

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Filipe Frazao / Shutterstock.com

Julian Dobson, University of Sheffield

Urban green spaces – including parks, woodlands, riverbanks, and gardens – are an essential part of a web of physical and mental well-being. They provide spaces to socialise and opportunities to connect with the natural world. They are restorative enclaves in stressful cities.

The UK government’s first strategy on loneliness, recently launched, recognises the importance of green spaces in supporting this web of connections. But England’s urban natural environment is increasingly at risk, jeopardising the ambitions of the loneliness strategy from the outset.

A whole chapter in the loneliness strategy is devoted to community infrastructure – the places, spaces and activities that bring people together where they live. The strategy promises to unlock the potential of underused community space, including local parks. It recognises the wealth of research that shows how green spaces enhance health and well-being and provide community meeting places.

Our research at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Landscape Architecture reinforces and enriches these key messages about green space and well-being. We are examining the relationship between natural urban spaces and mental well-being, exploring spaces, stories and connections in Sheffield, Britain’s fifth-largest city.

Endcliffe Park, Sheffield: a restorative and social space.
Paul Brindley/IWUN, CC BY-ND

What we have found in Sheffield resonates internationally. A study in Adelaide, for example, highlighted the interrelationships of green space, walking and social interaction in supporting well-being. Another study in the Netherlands highlights the role of green spaces in reducing stress, encouraging physical exercise and enhancing social cohesion. Our concern has been not only to enrich this scholarly understanding, but to examine how it can be better translated into practice.



Read more:
If nature is so good for us, why aren’t all public green spaces accessible?

Getting outside

In our own research we have worked with local professionals and community members, from volunteers in parks to doctors and urban planners. We have identified five simple and inexpensive interventions that will help to maximise people’s connections with urban nature and create more favourable contexts for well-being. Three of those interventions have a direct bearing on isolation and loneliness.

One is the provision of toilets and cafes in parks and woodlands. As one community worker told us: “It’s not that the toilet improves people’s mental well-being, it’s that the toilet allows them to do the activity that will improve their well-being.” Without them, many older people, parents with young children, or people with disabilities or long-term illnesses may decide that the city’s parks are only for the fit and healthy. More than 1,700 UK public toilets have closed in recent years, although MPs have long argued that councils should have a duty to provide facilities in key locations such as parks.

The necessary.
Hartrey Media/Shutterstock.com

A second intervention is the provision of staff in parks. These are people employed to look after and maintain the environment but also to run activities and support voluntary groups. One member of a local volunteers group told us how invaluable Sheffield City Council’s park rangers were in helping to organise and inform their work. Without them, the opportunity this group provided for meeting others and engaging in meaningful activity might be lost. According to the trade union Unison, 81% of parks departments have lost skilled staff since 2010.

We are also recommending support for voluntary and community organisations to put on activities in parks and green spaces. These are the organisations that are rooted in local communities and can provide a vital bridge between spaces and people, creating safe and supportive environments for those who might be nervous about venturing outside.

Groups like Manor & Castle Development Trust, for example, offer health walks and confidence-building activities for people in one of Sheffield’s most deprived neighbourhoods. Such community infrastructure doesn’t simply sustain itself: it requires support, links with local planners and policymakers, and financial and material resources.

One voluntary sector worker explained the difference a trusted local organisation can make:

Having a friendly face – having people there that they know and that they recognise … that’s so important. And for so many people, that might be the only contact that they have all day.

Community activities such as gardening are a key way that green spaces can address loneliness.
Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock.com Austerity impacts

These interventions are not expensive, but they do cost. They are also the easiest costs to strip out of hard-pressed local government budgets, with the effects felt disproportionately by disadvantaged people in deprived areas. When they are cut, green spaces become underused and can appear hostile rather than welcoming.

The government’s loneliness strategy highlights the £500,000 recently allocated by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to “identify and share effective and deliverable models of service delivery” through the new Parks Action Group.

But the funds for managing the green spaces that people use to socialise, to meet friends or find restorative environments outside the home, continue to shrink. In just one city, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, funding for parks and allotments has been cut by 90%. Over the next ten years, without further cuts, the council faces a shortfall of a further £17.5m.

These cuts are directly linked to austerity policies that have removed resources from local government while adding to local authority responsibilities. In 2019-20, English local authorities face a further loss of £1.3 billion in government funds.

In this context, even simple, cheap interventions to increase well-being and reduce loneliness become harder to achieve. The words in the loneliness strategy may be warm, but the climate lonely and isolated people face in English cities continues to grow harsher.

Julian Dobson, Research Associate, Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature, University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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An area of the Caledonian Forest where the scots pine and birch trees are not being replaced by new growth. Camilla Allen, 2018.

Camilla Allen

In late September I was standing at Inverness station two hours before I was meant to be there. A pause which afforded a moment of reflection on the rush of the preceding week: writing, starting teaching, going to talks, delivering a lecture… It had been busy, and suddenly I was on the cusp of something different and unknown: a week volunteering for Trees for Life in the Highlands of Scotland, working to restore the Caledonian Forest. But was a week in the wilds really a good idea, considering that I am aiming to have my thesis written by Christmas and done and dusted early next year, ready for submission? One might think that it all was a bit of a distraction from the major task at hand… that it might even *gasp* be considered a holiday.

My thesis is on the forester and environmentalist Richard St. Barbe Baker, founder of the Men of the Trees and visionary behind the Green Front and Great Green Wall. Whilst the Cold War escalated, he imagined a world where the armies of the world would put down their weapons and join together to fight the growing deserts; reclaiming land for food production so that people would have enough to eat. It was a utopian idea which I first encountered whilst writing about Baker for my MA – brought to life in a children’s book, Kamiti, which seemed both laudable in its ambitions, but woefully optimistic; a beautiful dream which was unlikely to become a reality.

Now, four years after finishing that first essay, I have been immersed in the world Baker grew up in, and the narrative he created for himself as ‘The Man of the Trees’. It has required for me to maintain a distance from my subject – my role being to challenge, contextualise, and critique – so I can present a counterpoint to his well-honed biography. And that hasn’t proved to be a problem, but it felt that something was missing: that my research would make that more sense if I actively participated, rather than just watching from the sidelines (or, to be more accurate, keeping my head resolutely buried in a pile of books in the British Library).

On Saturday 29th September, I got in a bus with eight other volunteers and two group leaders to spend a week in a remote glen with intermittent electricity, no running water, a list of things for us to get done, and a whole lot of group dynamics to navigate. From the minute we set off, it was clear that we were in good hands; the aims and objectives of Trees for Life as a charity were clearly spelt out, the routine and responsibilities of cohabiting with strangers was deftly managed and we settled into life in the bothy quickly and easily. Describing it as transactional gives the wrong impression – but it was clear that the organisation knows that they are creating more than just an opportunity for people to plant a few trees and tick something off a bucket list…

The significance of being there was humbling. Trees for Life provides a place for people to learn, to explore, to challenge themselves, to grieve, to change. I didn’t know at first exactly why I was there, but it soon became clear that it was so I could connect to the real energy and impetus behind my thesis: that through planting and protecting trees we can change the world for the better, and possibly ourselves to boot.

Time had felt so rushed before, and suddenly I was feeling a calm and quiet which is absent in much of my life. The day was simple: wake, eat porridge, make a sandwich, get wet weather gear on (as well as a safety whistle and high-vis) and head to the hills for tree planting, ecological surveying or fence removal.

This image shows the difference between areas which are fenced off to prevent browsing by deer until the trees are big enough to sustain being nibbled and the areas to which they still have unfettered access. Camilla Allen, 2018.

On the day that we removed tens of metres of deer fencing that had protected a re-establishing forest, I had a big grin slapped across my face for most of it. Writing and researching is a solitary business, and the contrast of hauling big bales of wire and fence posts around on a steep and slippery (and beautiful) slope was exhilarating. The moments of stillness that were also afforded were important too: a daily ‘sit spot’ where the group found an isolated place to sit, look and listen; looking up from planting tiny tree-lings to see a line of geese flying through the Glen; eagles crossing the sky; otter patrols as dawn broke.

The prospect of finishing my thesis is daunting sometimes; there is a lot of hard graft between me and a stack of crisp A4. But now the world beyond is looking all the more inviting. I am not sure where this research will take me, but it is fair to say that I am looking forward to putting some of this energy and enthusiasm into something practical and tangible as well as connecting it to the academic realm I have been inhabiting for the last six years. That is what has inspired and sustained me since I moved to Sheffield and studied landscape architecture: that I was on the way to finding something which had eluded me up until that point, and I think it has been found.

At the end of the week, everyone contributed a line for a collaborative poem. I had ‘peace through purpose’ brandished in my mind all week. I love the duality of the word: both a state of tranquillity and the absence of conflict; micro and macro. Baker’s dream is that of the macro – the world made safe through tree planting, and it just so happens that the macro version of peace might bring great respite to those doing the digging.

 @CamillaAllen

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Dr Nicola Dempsey

Peter Neal, landscape consultant and Fellow of the Landscape Institute came to the Department to lead two informative sessions on the challenges facing landscape managers today. Peter’s talk took us through the changes over generations in how we manage our parks. He showed how closely some parks still replicate park management practices that Edwardian park keepers in straw boaters were doing to sustain manicured lawns that were not to be walked on (keep off the grass!) and bedding areas.

But in other places, as a result of changes in landscape management practices, parks are very different landscapes. This is timely as one of our current PhD candidates, Jinvo Nam has just published an article about the acceptability and feasibility of community food growing in parks, marking a shift in the ways in which the park is being considered by landscape managers. Jinvo’s research also examined different planting types as well as ways that parks might provide income generation. Peter talked about how the financial pressures on local authorities as a result of this prolonged period of austerity have disproportionately and adversely affected parks as a non-statutory service. Citing the State of UK Public Parks 2016 and 2014 which he co-authored, Peter highlighted how 95% of park managers surveyed expect their revenue budget to be cut over the next three years. The extent of those cuts varies widely, but cities such as Newcastle have seen ‘brutal’ budget cuts: the council’s parks budget has been reduced by 90% since 2010.

Teaching session in conversation with David Cooper, previously Head of Policy & Projects, Sheffield City Council, Parks & Countryside

Peter also led a Department-wide seminar to talk more about the trust model as one response to budget cuts – and one that is being developed by Newcastle City Council and the National Trust. They plan to create a new charitable company which will manage a large proportion of the city’s parks and allotments. While there is a long history of Trusts taking on the green space management in the UK – from the National Trust, regional Wildlife Trusts and local community development trusts – it is a contentious model which requires close examination. A number of students challenged the idea that trusts can work for everyone in society, calling into question how notions of democratically public and freely accessible spaces might be changed when the (publicly accountable) public sector is not managing them.

This all made for an excellent debate, and one that will continue in Sheffield in November. As part of the city’s Festival of Social Science, the Department is co-hosting a free debate on Monday 5th November, 4-6pm in the Millennium Galleries, with Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies at Sheffield Hallam and Sheffield City Council. The debate brings together speakers from the public, private and third sectors to try and answer the question: Who are the best custodians of Sheffield’s parks and green spaces – and how does that happen in practice? It is free to attend but you need to book your seat here. This debate is part of a week-long exhibition It’s Great Outdoors which will be held from Saturday 3rd-Saturday 10th November, marking the launch of the Public Urban Green Space Group (PUGS) which brings together academics, policy-makers, practitioners, community groups and members of the public who are interested in parks and other public green spaces. Hope to see you there!

Nicola Dempsey

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