Fields in Trust

SUMMER OF PARKS: What does the evidence tell us and why does it matter?

Posted on 25th May 2019
A review of the cross-cutting policy impact of parks and green spaces, as our Summer of Parks gets underway.

Everyone uses parks and green spaces. We can all remember favourite childhood parks and although, throughout our lives we may use green spaces in different ways, they are visited and valued by all sectors of the community. Many people aren't aware, however, that providing these publicly accessible green spaces is not a statutory requirement, meaning they can often be the first to feel the pinch in times of council budget cuts, and the benefits they bring are unevenly distributed.

Yet barely a week goes by without our much-loved parks and green spaces being identified as part of the solution to a growing range of social policy issues. Parks can help deliver improved physical health, and mental wellbeing and this role has been reflected in recent reports and publications from Westminster government departments which have repeatedly referenced parks and green spaces as important to reaching their policy goals. For example:

  • The Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government's Integrated Communities Strategy and associated Action Plan identifies the importance of parks and green spaces as spaces where people can meet, mix and strengthen local connections.
  • DEFRA's 25-year environment plan includes proposals to improve air and water quality, enhance wildlife habitats and use green spaces to improve public health and wellbeing. This represents an important shift in thinking towards long term positive action to better people's lives and improve the environment.
  • The Government's Childhood Obesity Plan references "limited access to green spaces" as a contributory cause and encourages local authorities to "...ensure access to quality green space to promote physical activity".
  • The value of parks and green spaces is referenced in the Department for Culture Media and Sport's "Civil Society Strategy", as well as the "A Connected Society" plan where the value of parks in tackling loneliness is discussed.
  • The Department for Health's preventative health agenda is only possible with quality, protected parks and green spaces to enable people to take personal responsibility for their own health.

But it is not only in Westminster that the importance of parks and green spaces is being discussed in the political arena. The health and wellbeing benefits detailed in the Fields in Trust research report Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces were presented in an evidence session at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood and presentations, including National Assembly members, have shared the findings in the Welsh Senedd.

More recently our Green Space Index - Fields in Trust's barometer of publicly accessible park and green space provision - has been welcomed as a new contribution to the evidence base. The Welsh Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government, Hannah Blythyn, said: "Parks and green spaces play a vital role as places to exercise, relax in or enjoy and engage with nature, helping improve our health and wellbeing. We want to ensure good access to parks and green spaces for all our communities, for people of all ages and wherever they live in Wales. I welcome Fields in Trust’s new Green Space Index, which adds to the evidence base on publicly accessible green spaces for current and future generations".

Similarly in Scotland Kevin Stewart, Scottish Government Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning responded the finding that Scotland tops the Green Space Index. It both provides more green space per person than any other part of in Great Britain (45.86 square metres per person) and has the most legally protected green space (2,143 hectares).

The Minister said: "We want Scotland to be the best place possible to live, work, grow up and study in. Our parks are places where communities can come together and people of all ages can take part in sport, exercise and play. Access to parks and green spaces, and engagement with nature positively enhances our lives and health so I am delighted that people in Scotland enjoy the highest level of green space per person in these islands".

It is only now that we have a baseline of data on where parks and green spaces are located across the country that we can map that out against population data from the 2011 census to see who has good access to local parks. By drawing this data together we have been able to produce four key indicators to illustrate the results:

  • 216k hectares of local park and green space in Great Britain
  • 35.22sqm of green space per person
  • 2.6 million people are more than ten-minute walk away from a park
  • Under 6% of Great Britain's park and green space land is legally protected with Fields in Trust

We know that populations in urban areas are projected to grow and this will negatively impact on the quantity of green space available to communities. We also know that parks are at crisis point and the lack of funding and statutory protection are compounding the issues facing parks. It has never been possible to track how many local green spaces have been lost to development, but future iteration of the Green Space Index will enable us to analyse those trends over time.

Parks and green spaces have a vital role to play in our urban and rural environments at a time of Government commitment to improving health and wellbeing, air quality, climate change along with addressing issues of social inequality and environmental decline. Parks can be multi-functional delivering multiple benefits, from flood-risk, biodiversity through to places to unwind. So, if we protect parks then we can improve people's lives at the same time as improving the environment. By considering parks and green spaces as critical social and physical infrastructure that provides essential services to people and the environment then we all have the most to gain.

Summer of Parks: Join the discussion as we champion our parks and green spaces this summer

Have a Field Day: Plan a picnic in your park for Saturday 6th July and encourage everyone to vote for UK's Best Park!

Green Space Index: Explore our new barometer of publicly accessible green space provision