Saturday, 27 February 2016

The Parks Conundrum

Last week I attended an RHS Britain in Bloom Seminar where much of what was spoken of was the incredible work being done by the many friends of parks groups across the country and the volunteers who spend huge amounts of their time working in those parks and gardens. Of course often britain in bloom is led by councils, but in one form or another it relies on a huge force of volunteers to do much of the manual labour and create these amazing town centres and neighbourhoods that win awards each year.
So first some facts I picked up....
Britain in Bloom sees over 28,000 volunteers each do an average of 65.9 hours in parks countrywide. Each volunteer hour is worth £13.10.
That's over 915,000 volunteering days.
There are 571 groups working in parks across the UK,-a number which has steadily increased since numbers began in 2006, to now have 30% more active groups across the country.
The economic value of friends of parks group is seen as £45.7million
The average group looks after 18 acres.
last year they planted over 3 million bulbs.
Between them they have raised over £1.5 million for parks across the UK.
Lister Park, Bradford and it's Mughal Water Gardens

So this must be all good?
Well yes of course it is. Parks groups are a vital part of park teams today, and are, without a doubt, the driving force behind changes in parks nationwide. Just here in Bristol we have seen parks address anti-social behaviour through planting, gain village green status, become community assets handed over to communities to run. We even have an Edible Park that I am working on with Incredible Edible Bristol, leased to us for 5 years. There are equivalent places all across the UK, that are seeing people power move the parks movement forwards.
But what seemed slightly sad to me, and looking around the city here I see this in reality, is that the successful parks groups are in a very definite demographic and whilst this is not in itself an issue, I wonder how we make these groups more diverse and bring in our rich minority cultures to the conversation. After all our parks are for all, rich, poor, young and old and historically were there to ensure that there was green space in our cities for all to enjoy. With 70% of our population likely to live in urban and suburban areas by 2050, and in the knowledge that we need nature in our lives to be well both mentally and physically, we need to ensure that parks don't become seen as the home of the middle classes and that they remain truly accessible to all.

My question is how do we achieve this in a way that isn't patronising and top down? How do we engage communities with parks and gardens when they feel disengaged. And more importantly how do we ensure that those spaces are what is needed by all the communities in a city? Where it's great to see anti-social behaviour being dealt with by introducing large swathes of planting to discourage certain elements, how do we engage with the problems to ensure they have a place to go. By doing that are we just squeezing that anti-social behaviour into a park where there is no park group to deal with those issues?

For certain working in parks is not easy. Our Incredible Edible Bristol Edible Park is right in the middle of the city and for sure has been a space that has seen huge issues in it. When we took it over the park was hidden behind a huge swathe of shrubs that had never been pruned and it was impossible to see into the space. We spent the first day we were there collecting needles, tins that had been used to take crack, bottles, cans and rubbish whilst chopping back the undergrowth to make the space feel safer and more inclusive. It would have been easy to chase the addicts and the drinkers from the space, but rather than doing that and alienating people, we have worked around and with some really challenging people, all of whom we are filling the park with food for. We have taken specialist advice, learnt where to signpost people to, have emergency numbers and, I hope, we are completely non judgemental. There have been moments of real fear, but also of quite extraordinary joy as we have gained trust whilst starting to create a space which I hope will be one that is completely unique.
The edible park before....

The Edible Park with work begun..
With parks having lost a total of £59million in cuts and with some cities such as Liverpool, which in 2 years will have a parks budget of zero, our parks are in real danger. Bit it isn't just our parks that are in danger. Horticulture has traditionally been taught by parks teams, taking on apprentices and working with them as they rose through the ranks. Whilst bedding schemes and seaside type planting may not be to all our tastes, this was the place where gardening professionals began their careers, sowing seeds and taking cuttings, planting, weeding, maintaining in all weathersas part of a team that took huge pride in it's work.The loss of these teams is not only sad for horticulture either, but for the towns and cities that no longe have the joy of their parks and gardens being cared for by real horticulturists who knew when and why to carry out tasks based on the seasons, rather than vans full of slash and burn type gardeners who are either on a mower or 'pruning' with a hedge trimmer. With the lack of funds available to parks, who knows where this crisis might lead, but whilst many people's view of amenity horticulture is that of the slash and burn, how can we expect young people to see horticulture as a valid career choice I wonder?
Bedding scheme in Bristol

I digress. What is so great about Britain in Bloom is the way it has increased civic pride and to some extent moved responsibilty for our parks and gardens into the hands of people. These shared spaces, although sadly missing in many places their parkies and park teams, are being pushed forwards in exciting ways by people, proving that in reality people can make real change when given the opportunity, which Bloom has definitely begun to make possible. What I personally would like to see is the RHS ensuring that the parks in our towns and cities more marginalised areas can also have local people working on them with the support of the RHS where needed and bringing in other local organisations to help where appropriate. Wouldn't it be great to see local schools, youth groups and minority groups working alongside what are left of parks teams, to not only make beautiful spaces but also to learn horticultural skills which could lead to employment or an exciting new hobby. If we are serious about reinvigorating horticulture and keeping our public parks and gardens exciting and inclusive spaces, isn't this the way to move forwards?


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  2. Thoughtful post, as usual. The issue of involving a more diverse group of people seems to be one that cities need to look at around the world, especially, as you note, the majority of us are projected to be living in urban centers in the coming decades. In Vancouver our Parks budget has steadily declined over the past several years. Our two Botanic gardens (UBC and VanDusen) are lucky enough to have many knowledgable and dedicated volunteers, who host special events, collect seeds, guide visitors, and lots more. I think however, that increased funding of park programs, along with opportunities for horticultural education and well-paid employment are really vital issues that need to be addressed more fully Many younger people, might like to volunteer, but can't afford to, timewise or economically.