This week's Summer of Parks spotlight shines of Sutton Park in St. Helens and how our Active Spaces programme has helped people improve their health and wellbeing in an area identified as having high levels of inactivity.
We know that parks and green spaces can make a positive difference to the physical health and mental wellbeing of their regular users. Learning from this insight, Fields in Trust, in partnership with the London Marathon Charitable Trust established the UK-wide Active Spaces programme to protect parks and green spaces in perpetuity and support community activation. The programme targets projects which will inspire the most inactive communities to get active and use their local parks for sport and exercise whilst ensuring these green spaces are protected for future generations to enjoy.
An analysis of local demographic data revealed that Sutton Park in St. Helens, Merseyside was a candidate site for the Active Spaces programme. St. Helens is the 36th most deprived borough in the country and data from Sport England's Active Lives survey show that for some sections of the community over half are inactive and 14% are insufficiently active. The Sutton ward is identified as an area of particular concern in St. Helens with life expectancy almost five years lower than the England average for men and four years lower for women. People "not in good health" in Sutton represent 9.28% of the population - significantly more that the England average of 5.49%.
Local children have poor health indicators: in Sutton 28.3% of school reception-age children are overweight against an England average of 22.2%, whilst 22.9% of local children live in low-income families compared to the England average of 16.6%.
Located within this community is Sutton Park, in a built-up area bordered by housing and a major road. The park is easily accessible from all sides, being an open access space. There is a trim trail and a small outdoor gym area already at the space, alongside a children's play area and some marked-up football pitches used for informal football training.
With both an identified community and a suitable location, a strategic overview identified Sutton Park as a place where the Active Spaces programme could make a significant impact: the data shows us where we need to act.
The Sports Development team at St. Helens Council led the project and their own data revealed not only the levels of inactivity and deprivation in Sutton but also the sort of activities which would be attractive to local people - responses from four years of community surveys and a specific consultation with the Citizens Advice Bureau identified that:
The Sports Development team are experienced at engaging people in new activities, they encourage people "thinking about participating" to "have a go" and support them all the way through to regular participation. Part of the approach is to identify and remove barriers to participation.
The team planned a mixture of free and low costs activities to engage local residents, improving both physical and mental health and wellbeing. Planned activities over the summer included beginner jogging sessions (Couch to 5k), incorporating the existing trim trail and walking fitness sessions for both older people and inactive new mums (buggy walks). Fitness sessions supported participants to make best use of the existing outdoor gym equipment. There were also walking football, cricket and rugby sessions. In addition, some family multi-sport sessions involving tennis, rounders, Kwik Cricket and fitness activities as well as traditional 'Sports Day' events provided a multi-generational aspect to the project.
Building on the insight that those with children value the health of their children over their own and are more likely to become active for their benefit, the programme encouraged children and young people to participate alongside parents and carers which helped with modelling positive health behaviour and setting up habits which will hopefully be continued by the young people and help tackle the increase in childhood obesity.
Whilst the programme was based on physical fitness there was, as anticipated, an additional impact on wellbeing and community connections that comes with spending time regularly with neighbours and friends.
Self-reported stories of the impact of exercising with friends can be compelling - like those involved in the Active Spaces project at Hailsham in Sussex. But we are also evaluating impact by reviewing the data on individual progress over time. As the initial summer activity at Sutton Park reaches its conclusion, there is still a lot to learn from reviewing who participated. Early indications show that regular attendees at the fitness sessions report improved confidence and resilience: the data shows both a marked increase in life satisfaction and a significant reduction in anxiety, two of the measures that determine wellbeing and which were used in our Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces research.
Active Spaces projects across the UK have already made a difference to their initial participants and crucially, as a result of this programme, each green space will now be secured so future generations can use it for play, sport and exercise. Whilst we instinctively know that green spaces are good and do good, analysis of data enables us to present a strong case for why they should be protected for good.
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