The Future Parks Accelerator programme https://www.futureparks.org.uk/ was conceived following the Parliamentary Inquiry 2016-17 The Future of Public Parks in the UK, which set out to address 3 over-riding questions: –
- The challenges Parks face?
- Why Parks matter?
- A sustainable future for Parks?
The first question from the inquiry, regarding the challenges parks face, was overwhelmingly answered as being the issue of dwindling revenue budgets. But we would argue this is a consequence of something more significant. We believe that the number one challenge parks face is one of identity. It is their lack of identity that has led to their dwindling budgets and support.
Identity formation has three parts:
1. Discovering and developing a things potential
2. Defining it’s purpose
3. Finding opportunities to exercise that potential and purpose.
“No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced”
― David Attenborough
The reason people care about what they have experienced is because they start to get to know something, to understand it and discover it’s identity – it becomes visible to them and they start to form an attachment.
Each of the original FPA pilot sites in Birmingham approached this challenge from their own unique perspective but there was one consistent conclusion that the 19th century Victorian Parks model that sees parks fundamentally as destinations and created parks for the many Victorians who needed to visit them for relief from extremely poor living conditions, may have worked then, but doesn’t work now.
What has emerged as ‘new’ from the FPA programme is that this destination approach is inconsistent with equity and any form of climate or environmental justice. This presents a fresh challenge whereby a new overriding philosophy or purpose for parks is required- that is to move from destination, the 19th century idea; to integration, which is far more consistent with the 21st century challenges all global cities face. This is a key mindset shift which the Birmingham Future Parks Standard represents.
New data that informs a new perspective
This mindset shift has been accelerated by the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has shown in almost all urban areas, the inequity of access to quality green space. These urban districts often suffer from other inequality issues too. A response from some cities has been to produce an environmental justice map for their city.
The Birmingham FPA team investigated the data lying behind these maps and identified a gap in the England IMD- Index of Multiple Deprivation. The England IMD is the standard measuring or benchmarking tool for cities to benchmark districts within their city but also city to city comparisons. It is also the tool being relied upon to build any ‘Levelling-up’ and post-Covid Recovery Plans. The sponsoring Government department known as MHCLG; has now changed to The Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities. They hold the responsibility for the IMD index, levelling-up, local authorities and communities, planning and parks. So the opportunity exists within one Government department to ‘join-the-dots’ across these issues, and accept this new index domain.
Currently the England IMD has no reference to access to green space, nor to current or future climate impact. Consequently, urban areas are in danger of planning future changes or investments that could make matters worse for people living in these districts; when the intentions are to improve the quality of life.
Birmingham City Council has piloted a new IMD domain for environmental justice, based on the available GIS datasets: – Access to Green Space, Urban Heat Island, Flood Risk, Excess Years Life Lost, Indices of Multiple Depravation.
Birmingham’s Environmental Justice Map: https://naturallybirmingham.org/environmental-justice/
From city scale to site scale
Having identified many of the additional attributes brought by taking an integration approach, a first draft site audit tool has been devised. It is based on the Green Flag Award https://www.greenflagaward.org/ is an international benchmark of quality for parks. Although Green Flag process can go along way to ensuring parks are good quality it doesn’t look at green space from an environmental justice point of view. There are green spaces that may not easily meet the “Good” Green Flag benchmark but they are vital to the people that use them everyday. They may not reach the Green Flag “Good” standard but with more care and attention they could become good enough to start a more ambitious programme of development. There are many sites that wouldn’t be put forward for a Green Flag Award but could start to be improved immediately looking to reach a minimum standard of “fair” to start with. As far as we know there is no nationally agreed minimum standard for green space that details what you can expect for all green spaces in managed by BCC. This sets parks apart from many other public services, such as libraries and museums; or wider council provision such as care homes or schools.
The Birmingham Future or Fair Park Standard looks to combine both this recognised gap of the absence of a minimum standard and at the same time respond to the integration approach. To help achieve this Birmingham City Council has started with the existing Green Flag Award criteria and re-aligned the categories to fit the 5-capitals idea https://www.forumforthefuture.org/the-five-capitals?gclid=CjwKCAiA9qKbBhAzEiwAS4yeDcsIepmLkfrgFiUhruo9NWiLw2_3OF-a9vKQWAa5K-KBaCt4QQvB2xoCLY8QAvD_BwE and where required bolstered the standard with additional integration and environmental justice measures.
The Birmingham Future Parks Standard then aims to ensure that each site in council ownership would reach the entry level requirement for Green Flag with each criteria gaining 4 points or above.
With over 600 such sites in Birmingham, the City of Nature Plan, allows for a 25-year timeframe; but clearly starting with those in greatest need. For this solution to work requires the council to recognise an integrated solution; namely that the parks service alone, will not be responsible for delivering all the proposed activities or engagements. This is where and how the Birmingham Fair Standard represents a change-model and not just a bolt-on audit tool.
There is one more important aspect to this integration approach to parks, that is how they need to respond to the dual challenges of climate and ecological emergencies. Here cities and Governments have tended to focus very strongly on carbon and the mitigation agenda, to reduce emissions. This is obviously vital and often easier to plan and price for. The other half of the challenge is that of adapting to an already changed and still changing climate. These risks are very real and increasing. This is where the ecosystem services offered by nature can help relieve these impacts. These risks and therefore reliefs are felt disproportionately in districts affected by environmental justice. If ‘Levelling-up’ is going to mean anything, then climate-proofing has to be built into any long-term solution for these places and their communities. So the role for parks and urban green space has to be recognised as vital to achieving this balance at the local scale. At the city scale the ecological footprint has to be increasingly offset through improved and increasing natural environments. Any site audit tool has to reflect this wider network contribution. Birmingham’s Fair Standard recognises the Nature Recovery Network potential of sites; whilst the city environmental justice map highlights to missing gaps in the much-needed city network of green space. These are vital elements in the integration approach. So far, the first two questions from the Inquiry have been looked at, the challenges parks face; and why parks matter.
The Birmingham Fair Standard is aimed at bringing parks to life at the heart of communities; but not primarily through substantive capital investments, but through activating the space and engaging communities and giving them a role in the long-term governance solutions to the future of parks. Through an integrated approach, working across council and strategically with the city’s third sector agencies and organisations.
The primary aim of the whole process is to build capacity. This represents quite a mindset shift for the parks sector who have battled for many years to keep their ship afloat. What the Parliamentary Inquiry of 2016-17 and its subsequent working parties revealed was that this destination model for parks was fundamentally flawed and holed below the water line. The sector’s request for multiple millions of public funds not seen as a sustainable future model.