A packed house at The Building Centre heard bracing facts and innovative solutions to a looming crisis facing our public spaces, says John O’Reilly
Those expecting feisty Question Time knockabout at the debate on how to fund green infrastructure might have been disappointed by the absence of outrage. But they would have been deeply struck by the scale of the impact on urban green spaces of forthcoming budget cuts and by the creative thinking of the speakers seeking solutions.
The event, held alongside the Rethinking The Urban Landscape exhibition, curated by The Building Centre and Landscape Institute, was seen as a forerunner of the arguments and issues politicians might cover in the election run-up. But rather than illustrate divide, there was a sense that current and future cuts demanded new thinking if green infrastructure is to be maintained.
The opening salvo by landscape architect and environmental planner Peter Neal cited the 2014 report State of UK Public Parks (to which he contributed), containing eye-watering statistics: three in 10 park managers have already faced reductions of 20 per cent or more for their revenue and capital budgets; eight in 10 will face further cuts of which over three in 10 are facing cuts over 20 per cent or more.
Quality not quantity
Neal pointed to cities such as Tokyo, where the Japanese economy has been facing austerity since the 90s, arguing that when faced with reduced resources the best approach is to focus on quality not quantity. He proposed new funding mechanisms from allocating stamp duty to developers funding green spaces in lieu of taxes.
The key issue for Katherine Drayson of the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange is that those campaigning around environmental issues face a public who deep down think ‘why should we pay’ for green issues. She argued that the business case has still to be properly communicated.
Arguing that we haven’t valued our green spaces in economic terms she gave the example of ‘Green Prescribing’, where doctors prescribe using parks for both physical and mental wellbeing. She could have pointed also to the 2014 Natural England report Microeconomic Evidence for the Benefits of Investment in the Environment, which estimated the combined economic social costs of mental illness in England in 2009/2010 as £105.2 billion (and that includes direct healthcare costs of £21.3 billion and £30.3 billion in lost output).
Ed Wallis from the centre-left Fabian Society argued that part of the solution was in recognizing that commitment to green spaces is a political choice. The most effective way of getting people to engage in this choice is to develop a Pride of Place (the name of Natan Doron’s and Ed Wallis’ 2014 report).
Wallis argued that research shows that people think of ‘environment’ as where they live and who they live with – not about issues such as climate change, which is too abstract. He argued there is a ‘chemistry of community’ and what stops people from getting involved in green issues is the impression it is only for a clique.
Sue Ireland, Director of Green Spaces, City of London Corporation, and member of the Parks Alliance, brought a bracing realism to the volunteerism agenda in politics, seemingly a solution to every budgetary crisis. She wondered: where will all these volunteers come from who are being volunteered by politicians for pretty much anything and everything? Ireland pointed to the success of the Library Service in campaigning for its ongoing value in the face of cuts and argued that we needed more, and better, marketing and promotional skills around the issue of parks (and green infrastructure).
Noel Farrer, president of the Landscape Institute, began by citing Guardian journalist George Monbiot’s suggestion that people are increasingly suffering from loneliness, talking the audience through the thinking behind a design proposal for Bicester. His creative landscape process ranged from the spatial thinking of sociologist Richard Sennett on Edges (where things happen, are without rules), Borders (things happen with rules) Boundaries (limits and restrictions) to Mark Rothko’s Abstract Expressionism, fields of rectangular colour where movement is visible at the edges.
It was a landscaping solution to generate social interaction, and an engagement with place that would encourage house dwellers to pay a small fee for maintenance alongside an endowment. And it was a landscaping solution to Ed Wallis’ political narrative around engagement with place. When councils can’t afford to maintain the public spaces of these areas, Farrer said developers need a medium and long-term commercial stake in the value of these developments.
The lack of major disagreement felt like the scenario of a classic Hollywood disaster movie when disparate folk faced with oncoming disaster put differences aside and pull out the stops. The British public hasn’t quite registered the scale of what’s coming down the line for their green spaces, but at least some folk have a plan.
John O’Reilly is and editor and writer for The Building Centre
“How do you pay for green infrastructure in an age of austerity?” was the third talk in a series sponsored by Arup, LDA, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and LUC. It accompanied the exhibition Rethinking The Urban Landscape, curated by The Building Centre and the Landscape Institute, and sponsored by ACO and Penter (the landscape brand of Wienerberger).
References and further reading
Heritage Lottery Fund
State of UK Public Parks (Heritage Lottery Fund)
“The research shows that maintenance budgets are being reduced, capital will be less available for improvements, facilities are becoming more costly to use and some parks may simply be sold or transferred to the care of others. However park usage is increasing and communities are also taking on a greater role.”
Green Society: Policies to improve the UK’s green spaces
“Parks and other urban green spaces are highly important to the social and economic wellbeing of the country. However, as local authority budgets have been squeezed, public funding of parks and open spaces has declined. In light of this, Green Society suggests a number of innovative ways to protect and improve the UK’s urban green spaces including the idea of a council tax rebate for local residents who volunteer to maintain nearby green spaces.”
Pride of Place
“People’s sense of identity, shaped by their attachment to their local area, can sit at the heart of a new politics of the environment. Pride of Place: Land, community and a popular environmentalism calls for a revolution in the culture of environmentalism, which puts a much greater focus on rebuilding democratic capacity rather than focusing on securing legislative change at a national and supranational level.”
Nesta and Heritage Lottery Fund
Rethinking Public Parks
“Like many other public services our public parks are under increasing pressure, with limited resources available for maintenance and management. Public sector funding for discretionary services like parks is projected to fall by 60 per cent or more over the next decade. We need ambitious new business models, management tools and partnerships to create a more sustainable future for the way our parks are used and maintained. Not only could this lead to greater financial security for parks, it could also create new opportunities for employment and education, increased health and wellbeing, and greater biodiversity.
Microeconomic Evidence for the Benefits of the Investment in the Environment 2
“A review of the evidence for the benefits of the natural environment to people. It is based on the Ecosystem Approach, and is designed to help anyone who needs to make a robust case to decision makers for investment in the environment. The review focuses particularly on England, however incorporates useful evidence from other regions where appropriate.”