Parkrun is an important movement – and should remain free for participants

Parkrunners. Kim Ludbrook/EPA

There has been a huge public response to the recent decision by Stoke Gifford parish council in South Gloucestershire, England, to charge parkrun for providing free running events in local parks.

Parkrunners have taken to social media to mobilise support. Over 56,000 people have signed a petition in protest. The Little Stoke parkrun team subsequently cancelled the event citing concerns about safety and the impact on the park if large numbers of people turned up for a protest run. Little Stoke parkrun now intends to appeal the decision, however, and is looking into the legal basis for doing so.

Not a sports club

By charging fees, the parish council is treating parkrun in the same way as local sports organisations that pay to use the park and generate their own funds from fees and grants. Despite the fact that Sport England held up parkrun as a model of community sport, however, it receives no government funding.

Parkrun is different from traditional sports organisations in a number of ways: there are no membership fees and, with only a small paid staff, growth is driven by volunteers across the country who run weekly events. As a new kind of hybrid organisation, parkrun differs from sports clubs or commercial fitness groups. It is a not-for-profit that relies on sponsorship and corporate branding, with central boards of governance and local event management.

At the heart of the parkrun ethos is the desire to create opportunities for participation – free, socially oriented, open to all. But does a free event automatically mean that it is actually inclusive? Our research highlights the complex challenge of creating a “parkrun family” in which the aims of health promotion, sport and social connection co-exist.

There’s no typical parkrunner

Our research has sought to understand why parkrun is so successful and how it engages with groups who are less likely to be active.

Through interviews and surveys across four different UK parkrun sites, we found that people who take part have many different motivations for doing so, including meeting people, competing, getting fit and improving mental health. Parkrun offers an experience of running together that both reflects and challenges traditional notions of running as being primarily about competition.

Skill and ability are not the basis of involvement. In interviews, parkrunners spoke of belonging to something bigger than themselves, of sharing the pain and pleasure of running with people who have vastly different athletic abilities. Body size, age and disability aren’t factors in who can take part – adults and children are able to participate at their own pace. The inclusive format enables people to walk, wheel or run together. Even pets are welcome.

Parkrunners also spoke of the importance of social diversity. Different participants commented on how they valued the “social interaction with others that I would not meet at other times” and the “community spirit, belonging, it becomes part of your life”.

Parkrun has a high rate of female membership (about 50%) which stands in stark contrast to many other sports in the UK. Framing parkrun as “a run not a race” invites the participation of women and others who don’t identify with stereotypical views of running.

Parkrun: looking to go beyond this stereotype. www.shutterstock.com

Not perfect, but trying

Nevetheless, while parkrun is free and seeks to be inclusive, challenges remain. Our research identified fewer parkrunners from non-white British backgrounds, for example, even in areas of high ethnic diversity. However, parkrun volunteers are developing strategies to address this issue.

In an effort to be more inclusive, parkrun volunteers are building relationships with residents in council estates, offering volunteer guides for parkrunners with visual impairments, translating parkrun information into other languages and selecting more diverse images to use in social media promotion. These local activities can feed into broader parkrun strategies to strengthen the focus on free and inclusive events.

The value of parkrun is not just about health or the economic benefit of running, but also the creation of new social relationships that connect people in public places. Charging fees threatens to undermine the efforts of parkrun to be inclusive. Funding issues arise at the local level because local councils are not required by law to prioritise the funding of public parks and leisure services despite research that identifies the importance of access for all.

Little Stoke parkrun may seem like a local issue, but it’s actually an important test case for English local governments which have a responsibility to support equitable public health and community well-being.