There are more than 27,000 public parks and green spaces across the UK. These spaces range from large principal parks with many facilities and amenities, to small neighbourhood pocket parks. They provide people with places to relax, exercise, socialise, play and journey through. They are vital public assets in our urban environments, places that can: support community bonding; promote good health and wellbeing; encourage biodiversity and so much more. Indeed, research has shown that parks mitigate urban heat island effects too, with data suggesting this may have an effect up to 1km from the park boundary!
The importance of parks and green spaces is further reinforced by their inclusion in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: “By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.”
A 2016 review by the World Health Organisation also identifies the benefits of urban green spaces on improved mental health, reduced cardiovascular morbidity and mortality, obesity and risk of type 2 diabetes, and improved pregnancy outcomes. “Mechanisms leading to these health benefits include psychological relaxation and stress alleviation, increased physical activity, reduced exposure to air pollutants, noise and excess heat.”
Yet still, for some people, parks are not easy to access or can feel inhospitable… they can be unsafe for women after dark, physically inaccessible to disabled or elderly people, or intimidating due to anti-social behaviour. They can even be culturally and socio-economically exclusive. For example, the most affluent 20% of wards in England have five times the amount of parks or green spaces compared with the most deprived 10%, and four in 10 people from minority ethnic backgrounds live in the most green space-deprived neighbourhoods. If green spaces are associated with higher self-reported health and mental wellbeing, then their accessibility is a health equity issue, too.
Olympic Park, Shape Architects
Bridget Snaith, meanwhile, who did her PhD on the Olympic Park, shed light on the role of cultural values in ethnic minority under-representation in UK parks. As the majority of parks are designed by ‘Anglo’ groups, they often fail to represent different preferences and practices of potential park users. The social, cultural and political importance of representation is highlighted in Rethinking Urban Parks, which notes: “accommodating the differences in the ways social class and ethnic groups use and value public sites is essential to making decisions that sustain cultural and social diversity.”
Parks for people, place and planet
Parks and green spaces have played a part in Calvium’s history – we have worked with Bristol City Council on the Parkhive App, which showcases the city’s parks and green spaces, and collaborated in developing NetPark – the world’s first digital art park. Last year we provided digital placemaking consultancy for the National Trust and earlier this year, we supported the City of Edinburgh Council’s desire to provide new sensitive lighting in some of their parks and green spaces. For Edinburgh, I led research to assess the city’s 149 parks and recommend which ones receive initial funding. The report was presented as evidence to the Council committee and helped to secure investment – alongside a technical report from engineering and design consultancy, Atkins.
Exploring parks and green spaces through the combined lenses of ‘people, place, technology and data’ is an expertise sweet spot for Calvium.
Parks and green spaces: Innovation and inspiration
From safety and biodiversity, to physical and mental wellbeing, there are so many exciting and inspiring projects taking place all over the world that demonstrate the myriad ways we can make parks more accessible, inclusive, sustainable and enjoyable places for everyone. Here are some of them.
With the design of parks, play equipment and public spaces for older children and teenagers typically geared towards the default male – skate parks, football pitches, Multi Use Games Areas (MUGA) used almost entirely by boys – Make Space for Girls is on a mission to make public spaces and facilities more accessible for teenage girls. It is about improving health and wellbeing as much as it is diversity, given this has implications for how active girls are and their health in later life.
Make Space for Girls’ campaigning and collaboration with local councils recently saw the development of a co-designed play area in Bradford and an area in Oxford that girls presented to the Lord Mayor and other local stakeholders. It’s great to see girls being given opportunities to make sure their voices are heard in local decision-making as well.
Read the Girls and Skateparks: a Make Space for Girls Guide. Photo: Jan Kopriva, Unsplash
Urban Mind is a research project by King’s College London, landscape architects J&L Gibbons and arts foundation Nomad Projects, investigating the impact of nature on mental well-being in real time. Users are prompted to answer questions on an app, about how they feel and their surroundings three times a day, which lets them access individualised reports that summarise their experiences, while the results are used to help Urban Mind plan and design healthier cities.
One Urban Mind study found people living in cities could reduce their feelings of loneliness by visiting parks or other nature-type areas, with a single trip reducing feelings of loneliness by 28%. It also found that when people found themselves in places where they felt socially included, loneliness fell by 21% – falling by a further 8% when social inclusion happened in a nature-type environment.
With increased awareness of violence against women and girls, the safety of parks/ green spaces is a very present and real concern for many, significantly impacting the activities women choose to do there and when they choose to do them – whether walking, running or wheeling.
The University of Leeds conducted research that found women are three times more likely than men to feel unsafe in a park during the day, while four out of five feel vulnerable in parks after dark.
The study called for better lighting, lower hedges and, depressingly, “escape routes” in green spaces, which are all fundamental if women are to feel like they can travel freely and confidently through parks.
The Edinburgh Parks project I mentioned above also identified where lighting improvements could benefit the city’s parks and open spaces; seeking to enhance the quality of life of residents through its sustainable transport and active travel plans, as well as the ’20-minute neighbourhood’ concept.
A lovely biodiversity project that won the 2022 New European Bauhaus Rising Star award in ‘Reconnecting with nature’, Symbiotic Spaces Collective (SSC) is a transdisciplinary initiative to protect and increase urban wildlife. Aligning with another UN SDG to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems”, SSC uses open source 3D printing tech and local materials, particularly clay, to design and create habitats for a broad variety of species including water animals, small mammals, insects and birds.
By involving local materials, local communities of animals and humans, as well as technology through digital open source culture, the project hopes to “give visibility and cultural value to the complex connectedness of our ecosystems” and “contribute a part to the necessary change of values for a life-sustaining future.”
One of the parks in the Todos al Parque project, Barranquilla, Colombia
In 2011, over 60% of neighbourhoods in Barranquilla, Colombia lacked quality public and green spaces. This was having a clear negative impact on health, safety and environmental sustainability – many of these areas were prone to crime and poor health outcomes – so the Todos al Parque initiative set out to recover public parks and greenspaces across the city.
Using a participatory design process with local residents, 202 parks have been regenerated, 48 new parks built, over 4,300 trees planted and 93% of households now have access to green public space within an 8-minute walk. Aspects like the location of specific furniture, access ramps and paths without steps were taken into account to ensure needs of children, elderly and those with reduced mobility were met.
“Todos al Parque’s success is a timely reminder that inclusive green spaces are essential to building urban resilience, from boosting local employment and public health to bringing communities closer together – on top of climate and biodiversity benefits.” – Ani Dasgupta, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute.
Greater Geelong in Australia manages around 165,000 urban trees in streets and parks. They provide a vast array of benefits to the local community – ecological resilience, adaptation and mitigation against urban heat island effects and climate change, improved social and economic outcomes. It is estimated Geelong’s street and park trees are worth over $370m in structural asset value.
Given their importance to the city, the Council launched a data dashboard to share information with the community on the work it is doing to make Geelong a greener and more enjoyable place to live, as well as insights on tree species, age, health, etc. By making data open and accessible, and engaging the community to appreciate the trees and participate in activities such as tree planting, the strategy hopes to play an important role in ensuring Geelong’s long-term environmental sustainability.
Parks Without Borders is a $50m design approach in New York City working to “unify” park spaces with the neighbourhoods they serve. It is underpinned by three key aims: to make parks more accessible and welcoming to everyone; to improve neighbourhoods by extending the beauty of parks out into communities; and to create vibrant public spaces by transforming underused areas.
The project was kickstarted in 2015/16 by asking citizens to share insights on their local parks and choose the eight parks that would benefit the most from this new approach. The feedback was used to help shape future improvements at all sites – from pavement repairs and improved accessibility, to more street trees and ground plantings. A great example of simple yet meaningful innovation through community engagement, which reminds me of a project Bette Midler founded almost two decades ago…The New York Restoration Project has since evolved into an environmental justice charity preserving community gardens and other green spaces.
Seward Park, a Parks Without Borders Showcase Project, with opened sight lines and improved connections to adjacent spaces and uses.
Whether you feel inspired by Make Space for Girls’ campaigning to improve diversity and health, or excited by the prospect of using 3D printing to create habitats, there is no doubt that parks and green spaces are vital places of innovation – and hold the key to improving the lives of humans and animals alike.
Let’s not forget blue spaces, either. The University of Plymouth’s ‘A digital park in the sea’ project, where I’m a mentor, is currently working to identify new ways for communities to engage with the sea as a public space. The ultimate goal is to re-establish the bond between people and place. Like all of the projects before it, the success of this project will rely largely on the power of community engagement and co-design.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Edinburgh Parks project, or the essential role of parks more generally, I will be speaking at the Healthy City Design 2023 International Congress & Exhibition later this year, in the session Healthy Parks in the City: ‘Edinburgh’s parks: Investing in sensitive lighting to support active travel.’ Let me know if you’re going. Or if you have any great park innovation to share in general!
Feature Image Source: Nerea Marti Sesarino on Unsplash