British parks have never been more used by local people than today. Our green spaces play an increasingly important role in our daily lives and host more and more community events and sports activities. Despite their increasing popularity and profile, parks face an uncertain future as their funding is cut due to austerity. All over the UK councils, contractors, friends groups and local people are trying to manage this dilemma in different ways illustrated by the recent high profile press coverage of Parkrun where Stoke Gifford Parish Council decided to charge for use of the park. As they say necessity is the mother of invention.
We know our parks and green spaces provide a vast array of benefits for the local community and economy by boosting house prices and supporting businesses, improving health and well being by providing places to exercise and relax and safeguarding the environment by reducing carbon emissions, providing flood relief and supporting natural habitats and biodiversity. The case is well made and understood. It’s interesting that the major organisational and institutional beneficiaries of good quality parks are numerous including local businesses and shops, the health service, local police services, the environment agency and national government. However they are funded largely by a single body – the local council – and it is on the council the burden of managing cuts in services falls.
We are seeing attempts to balance the books by reducing funding, cutting maintenance regimes and attempts to raise income by allowing events and introducing charging. However not all parks communities are happy with the search for new income streams and the increasing use and commercialisation of their parks.
We are also seeing the increasing use of volunteers and Friends Groups who are being asked to do more and more as councils and contractors cut workforces. However not all Friends Groups have the capacity or the inclination to take on additional work – or indeed the necessary skills and expertise. Neither is there a guarantee that the profile of Friends Groups reflect the current users of parks especially younger people who tend to use their parks but whose social connectivity is usually by a completely different means and for different reasons.
Local community groups are also being asked to raise cash themselves from charities and other funders to replace the money being taken out of the system. But fundraising is a difficult job itself and the range of funds available and the different application processes can be mind boggling.
So how can we ‘square the circle’ to ensure the burden of financing parks falls on all of those organisations and institutions that benefit? How can we create new income streams that have the support of local people? How can we get more young people involved in owning, supporting and improving their local park and how can we best ensure the financial burden of these improvements is shared across all those who should and can contribute to the success of local parks?
This is a very challenging set of questions for a very challenging set of circumstances. How can you bring together all those with a wish for better local parks and green spaces with all those organisations and institutions who share this common interest and importantly are able to provide resources and money? It would be rather glib to say there is a simple answer to this however there may be some pointers in some of the initiatives sparked into life by the crisis in our parks.
What do Uber and Air BnB and many other technology platforms have in common? The answer is they bring together people with a need and some resources– those who want to rent a room or hire a taxi – with those who have the means to satisfy this need for a return – people with a spare room or house for rent or have a car they can use as a taxi for hire. All Uber and Air BnB do is provide an easy way of connecting to two. What they also do is create and maintain a community. What if we could use the same principle for improving parks helping those with a local need and a vision – local communities and park users – connect with those with the resources and an interest– councils, health services, local businesses, local people and funding bodies that can make it happen? Last year a community organisation in Peckham launched a campaign to turn a disused railway line into a public park. The £75k needed to conduct a feasibility study was raised in 12 weeks! What did they use to match their needs with those with resources who shared their vision in the most efficient manner? The answer is a crowdfunding .
That’s why we launched the Growing Greener Britain (GGB) Crowdfunding platform with Spacehive in March this year. As a charitable funding body GGB we wanted to fund more projects from the funding pot available, support projects that had clear and demonstrable community backing, provide a mechanism that allowed a greater array of funders to support projects and see if we could stimulate some innovations in local communities getting involved in improving and utilising their local spaces – especially young people. Finally we wanted a means of achieving this that was efficient and effective.
We’ve only been operating a couple of months but we are already seeing some results. We’ve funded big projects such as a classroom refurbishment at the Litten Reserve and a playground restoration in South Norwood-Greater London but also smaller projects such as the construction of a community recycled greenhouse. There are plenty more in the pipeline. We know that it places new and different requirements on those seeking funds and running projects. Instead of filling in application forms for grants they have to run campaigns and utilise social media. However this can bring in more young people who have these skills and help educate those who perhaps are less technology savvy. This in itself brings people together.
Uber say they are creating possibilities for riders, drivers and cities whilst Air BnB say they are connecting people to unique travel experiences. Crowdfunding will never be, nor should it, provide the funds to properly maintain our parks. However at a local level it can connect people with resources hitherto untapped creating new possibilities for improving our parks. It does provide the means of funding and delivering projects in a way that strengthens the ownership of projects; better matches the burden of resources with the benefits achieved; uses an efficient and effective medium and most importantly delivers some great improvements to local parks and for local people. Finding a way that replicates this approach at a national level would be truly unique!