William Eichler 23 February 2016

Britain’s parks must be funded differently if they are to ‘remain free and open’

New models for maintaining and financing public parks could offer viable alternatives to local authority funding, a new report argues.

Published today by Nesta, Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Lottery Fund, Learning to Rethink Parks presents the lessons from an 18 month programme designed to test ways for Britain's parks to source new sustainable funding.

The programme, called Rethinking Parks, gave a share of £1m in grant funding to 11 UK parks and also provided them with specialist support to explore new ways of raising income or reducing costs.

The parks experimented with a number of different models, including the greater use of herbaceous and wild meadow planting, public donations, mobilising volunteers and friends groups to help with maintenance, and even the creation of a pop-up meeting space.

Burnley Go to the Park project has saved nearly £70,000 since its launch and is forecast to save the council £119,000 per year by 2020. This represents 10% of their parks budget.

They did this by moving from a culture of ‘controlling nature’ to one of ‘working with nature’, turning some areas of parks over to meadows and planting some traditional beds with perennials rather than annuals.

The Bristol ParkWork project worked with volunteers and saw 40% of participants transitioning into employment and training. They also delivered £27,000 worth of improvements to parks across the city.

The report makes a number of recommendations based on lessons from Rethinking Parks.

It urges park teams to involve people — parks users, local businesses, residents — in designing and delivering new ideas. These ideas should then be tested, they say, with small-scale prototypes.

External support should also be drawn on to address skills gaps.

Government and policy-makers can also play an important role, the report says. They can encourage innovation and appropriate risk taking across the sector by sharing good practice and making sufficient funding available to support innovation.

Finally, funders should emphasise funding models that focus on sustainability - like mixed grant/loan funds or endowments.

Lydia Ragoonanan, programme manager of Rethinking Parks at Nesta, said: ‘Britain's public parks need new sources of income and ways to reduce costs if they are to remain free and open.

‘Rethinking Parks was designed to test ways to supplement existing funding. We now have a better understanding of the ideas with potential, as well as useful insights for the wider sector. Above all, the programme has shown us the importance of creating a space for parks to experiment, innovate and take chances.’

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