As voting opens for the UK's Best Park award, Fields in Trust Chief Executive, Helen Griffiths, discusses how our parks and green spaces positively impact our health and wellbeing.
It sometimes feels that everyday is an awareness day for some campaign or cause – each vying for attention in the busy rolling-news schedule and seeking space in the torrent of social media hashtags.
This week on consecutive days we marked World Mental Health Day and World Obesity Day – each equally drawing attention to issues that cause untold distress to those who live with the conditions and each having a revenue impact on the National Health Service to treat those living with the consequences. As well as sharing awareness days in the same week both causes stress in their communications the value of prevention - working early to help avoid a crisis happening later.
It is however, very challenging to support those at risk of future health or wellbeing concerns and difficult to identify where a concern tips over into something requiring professional intervention. We can each personally take steps to maintain a balance – but collectively we can also establish the infrastructure to support people make those healthy choices.
At Fields in Trust our latest research shows, for the first time at national level, a direct and statistically significant link between public parks and green spaces and health and wellbeing. The research establishes a link between an individual's use of parks and green spaces and an improvement in their physical health, life satisfaction, sense of worth, happiness and anxiety levels. The use of green spaces, at least once a week provides a "green dosage" to help people obtain the optimum health and wellbeing benefits.
But despite their clear health benefits, parks and green spaces are facing an uncertain future across the UK outdoor spaces are under threat. The API's Nowhere to Play report uncovered an alarming decline in playground provision. Between 2014/15 and 2015/16 local authorities across England closed 214 children's playgrounds with plans to close a further 234. Last year's Heritage Lottery Fund report highlighted cuts to budgets for the running of parks, with 92% of park managers reporting cuts to their budgets over the past three years. Fields in Trust's submission to last year's CLG Parliamentary Parks Inquiry called for a change in the way public green space is conceived, not simply as a drain on spending that requires a considerable amount of money to maintain - but rather as an asset which can be deployed to achieve longer-term savings and happier, healthier more connected communities. We endorse the Inquiry recommendation that councils should work with their local health and wellbeing boards to develop a green space strategy and I look forward to exploring these solutions and other pressing issues with the recently formed Parks Action Group of cross sector professionals.
To address the issues of mental wellbeing and physical fitness it's important to start young and establish a habit of physical activity. Playgrounds in parks are a vital resource for our youngsters to learn physical literacy, build confidence and experience the sheer joy of active play so need to be maintained and upgraded. For many who never had, or have lost, the habit of physical activity the Fields in Trust Active Spaces Programme – in partnership with the London Marathon Charitable Trust – is encouraging new groups of currently inactive users to enjoy their local green space. We will identify sites which are well loved by their communities and protect these spaces forever. The associated activity on site can help catalyse a local community to use their recreational space and get active.
Rather than tackle each issue individually as the awareness day calendar dictates, we could address, more holistically what we can do to support communities to take an active part in their own health and wellbeing. For both physical fitness and mental health, the nation's parks and green spaces can provide a space to play, to get active and to relax. Recognizing their value and celebrating these cherished spaces that contribute so much to our communities is one of the motivations for Fields in Trust's annual UK's Best Park award which is now open for public voting. Our Awards help recognise the role that our local parks play in our neighbourhoods, bringing people together and creating a safe outdoor environment that should be available to everyone. We invite all park users to vote for their favourite.
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.