I could just tell you that ‘parks are good’.
After twelve years at Groundwork, I can list plenty of reasons why they, and other urban green spaces, are important. How the connect us with nature, about the health benefits of access to good quality green space or stats about how much pollution or flood water they absorb.
Instead, I’m going to tell you about ‘my’ park.
It’s a fairly typical urban Victorian park. It’s not very big. It’s not very small. It has a lovely lake, a small play area, tennis courts, a council issue Multi Use Games Area and many, many ducks. These days it’s a little rough around the edges. Litter is endemic, everything could do with some fresh paint and it’s bounded at the one end by rushing traffic of the M6, but you can still get a sense of its former glory.
Our neighbourhood has its challenges too. It’s ranked as one of the top 10% most deprived areas in the country. We have more than our fair share of crime, lower levels of educational attainment and lots of low quality private rental properties. At times it feels unsafe to be out on the streets and I’ve seen enough violence, drug dealing and anti-social behaviour to know it’s not just a feeling.
So what does this have to do with parks?
Last weekend I helped to organise our park’s annual food festival and fun day and I suddenly realised that I was seeing in action something that I’ve written about many times: the park was creating a community. Local people had prepared traditional foods that reflected the huge diversity of people in the area and generously shared them with their neighbours. As you watched people tucking into South Asian, Malaysian, Romanian, Kenyan,Greek and other delicious dishes from around the world you could see barriers between groups coming down. While children bounced on inflatable castles and hooked ducks for prizes you saw conversations start up between parents that wouldn’t otherwise meet. Local historians illuminated us about our shared history and environmentalists about the nature on our doorstep. Most of all you could see people having fun together.
It’s not a unique event by any means, I know of two more similar events taking place just that weekend in the city and there will be many more throughout the summer. The exact activities taking place were different but at all of them you’d see the same community building effect.
That’s the real power of parks. There are few other things in our neighbourhoods that are so effective at providing neutral spaces where people can come together regardless of age, ethnicity, gender or religion and start creating a community. This is crucial because a strong community that can control its own destiny is the starting point of solving most of the challenges that we face. Community led activities are often the best way to improve the fabric of a neighbourhood and boost local pride, tackle the epidemic of loneliness that we now know is as bad for our health as smoking, reduce crime and increase engagement in education, encourage physical activity or to take practical action to create a more sustainable future. I could go on, but the more I look the more I see that empowering our communities and creating a sense of belonging, is the overlooked key to improving people’s lives.
More often than not the catalyst for this is the humble local park. Next time you visit yours to walk the dog, share a picnic or take the kids to feed the ducks I hope you’ll see it like I now do - an often overlooked tool that can help us to make better places. I’ll be doing my best to make sure mine lives up to this potential as much as I can. How about you?
If you are on Twitter you can find me tweeting as @mortal_kumquat or find Groundwork tweeting as @groundworkuk.
Post by Ben Leach, Groundwork UK