In the first half of the 20th century, the parks superintendent in Leeds started a scrapbook to chronicle the splendour of the city’s open spaces. Among the photos is a selection taken on a warm Whit Bank Holiday at Roundhay Park in 1944. They are startling. Despite World War II reaching its climax after years of hardship and rationing, the people caught on camera seem to have found happy respite from the harsh realities of life.
With children frolicking in the water, local cricket teams out on the green and couples lounging on the grass, the park was fulfilling the purpose envisaged by its Victorian founders: a green retreat, set apart from the surrounding city – a place of recreation free from the demands of productive activity or commerce.
Victorian municipal authorities had hoped that parks would be the “lungs” of heavily industrialised cities – green spaces where people, rich and poor, could mix. In other words, the Victorians had a clear sense that parks provided advantages which other urban spaces such as public squares, office blocks, shops, factories and markets did not.
Fast forward to the present day – and parks still provide a refuge from the daily pressures of urban living. Indeed, studies have proved that visiting parks can reduce stress, promote physical activity and forge stronger relationships within communities.
Yet today, the Victorian confidence that ever greater numbers of parks would be acquired for public use has dissipated. Earlier this year, MPs on the Communities and Local Government select committee said that Britain’s 27,000 urbans parks are at a “tipping point”. If action is not taken, parks are in danger of falling into a spiral of decline.
Without adequate baseline funding, the steady decay, closure or sale of parks are all firm possibilities. Local authority funding restraints are already limiting what park managers can do to exploit the health, social and educational benefits of parks.
One-third of park managers interviewed for the Heritage Lottery Fund’s 2016 report on the state of public parks said that their budgets had been cut more than 20% over the preceding three years. And just over half of the park managers surveyed reported that their parks were in good condition – down 8 percentage points from 2013. A third of the respondents were gloomy when they looked ahead, saying they believed the condition of their park would decline in the future.
Researchers at the University of Leeds’ Social Sciences Institute undertook a project on the future prospects of urban public parks in the city of Leeds, to consider the development of parks since their foundation in the Victorian era, as well as their prospects for the future.
As part of the project, they interviewed just under 6,500 members of the public and nine out of ten respondents said they had made at least one visit to a Leeds park in the preceding year. On the whole, people still saw the parks as the “green lungs of the city”, a “space apart” from the hustle, bustle and congestion of city life.
But people also had concerns about the future of the city’s parks. They feared that the quality of the parks would decline and that green spaces would be encroached upon by, for example, housing or commercial activity. Many were worried that the city council might introduce charges or abandon parks entirely in its efforts to balance the books.
Visions of the future
The research found that the precarious status of parks opens up a space for a range of possible futures – not just in Leeds but across the UK. The parks of tomorrow are likely to be more varied. The research identifies several possible futures, including “magnet parks” – parks which are managed as city-wide public assets where major events are held, providing cash injections for local authorities.
Alternatively, “club parks” could be funded through a local levy or tax, or maintained and used by local residents. There could even be “theme parks”, where various forms of commercial entertainment and leisure help to generate income for the park.
The recommendations from the research include the need for local and central government to have a statutory duty to safeguard parks, to ensure that they are accountable to the public over the future of parks, and to guarantee basic standards of upkeep. The research also suggests that a great deal could be achieved by creating a national agency to provide leadership and co-ordination across the sector.
With the squeeze on spending set to continue, it seems inevitable that parks will have to change and adapt. Whatever happens next, it’s crucial that the public are involved in a debate about the purpose of urban parks and are able to express their preferences about these new visions for the parks of the future. With these steps, we can develop the kinds of parks that the Leeds park superintendent would have been proud to see in his scrapbook.