Levelling up access to parks and green spaces

Helen Griffiths, CE of Fields in Trust, highlights how unless local parks and green spaces are protected in the long-term, any ‘levelling-up’ will be transitory.

A park in Liverpool

Copyright: Liverpool City Council

Helen Griffiths

This summer, we have seen record temperatures across the UK combined with the driest July for the best part of a century. At the high point of the heatwave, the Westminster Government recommended that we "find some shaded green space". So, for the second time in as many years, our local parks have been identified as an important part of the answer to a public health emergency – but being able to follow that advice may well depend on where you live.

The Fields in Trust annual Green Space Index analysis shows that 2.8m people in Great Britain live more than a 10-minute walk from their nearest park. Further investigation of the data shows that the local authorities identified for Levelling Up funding have 10 per cent less green space than authorities in the lower priority categories, and that 40 per cent of the worst performing areas for green space fall into the highest priority for levelling-up funding.

Access to green space varies from place to place and many communities do not have sufficient green space to thrive. 

As a recent Guardian investigation revealed, investment in parks and green spaces has severely declined over the last decade – with the biggest reductions focused on the most deprived locations. We know that one in eight households (12 per cent) in Great Britain has no access to a private or shared garden at home and that poorer communities and neighbourhoods with higher levels of ethnic diversity have less access to green space. Our analysis of population growth over the next 20 years identifies where these inequalities and gaps in green space provision will widen further still. Overall, the communities in most need of good quality, free-to-access green space are those who are experiencing the greatest challenges.

Throughout this long, hot summer we at Fields in Trust have been celebrating the nation's green spaces through our UK’s Favourite Parks campaign. Public nominations of 364 much-loved parks were put to the vote – and once the 30,000 votes had been counted and verified, we announced the winners over the bank holiday weekend. Of the four home nation winners, however, two are currently threatened with loss to development and a third was previously at threat but has now been saved. In this case, the threat of loss was the catalyst for energising a community campaign which has transformed into the local Friend’s group supporting the council in caring for the park. 

If you’ve found yourself at the local park more frequently over the last two years, then you are not alone; nearly half of the respondents in our recent survey said they have visited local parks more often since the Covid-19 pandemic. And 52 per cent say they appreciate the parks close to home more than they used to, (this rises to around two-thirds amongst those aged 16-44). A recognisable shift to more outdoor socialising as the number of covid cases continues to impact our daily lives may well see the increased footfall of recent years maintained into the future. It is therefore increasingly important, in the post-pandemic era, to ensure that the good quality green spaces we have are protected and enhanced. 

Crucially, we have a solution. Legal protection with Fields in Trust will protect green spaces from building development, ensuring current and future generations will always be able to enjoy the positive health and wellbeing benefits they provide to us all. Our work in Liverpool, for example, working with the City Council and the community-led friends of parks forum will see 100 parks and green spaces across the city protected in perpetuity. The first phase, in process now, includes 10 local community parks in areas identified by our analysis as having acute strategic need for protected green space, as well as the city's ten major parks.

The pandemic and the local impacts of climate change have shifted the perspective on our urban parks. This new recognition of the role of local green space delivers a real moment in time to revalue parks and recognise their role, for the health and wellbeing of individuals and also a stronger, sustainable and more equal future for communities. 

Parks should be central to levelling up policy development which requires a focused, long-term plan of action if it is to act upon the drivers of spatial disparity. Ensuring all neighbourhoods have an accessible provision of parks and green spaces can help address a complex set of targets set by the Government which include improving pride of place, developing climate resilience, and improving local community infrastructure. 

Fields in Trust's analysis suggests that, unless local parks and green spaces are protected in the long-term, any levelling-up interventions will be transitory. Fundamentally the future of local parks and green spaces should be protected for the long term to secure the multiple benefits they deliver.