Public engagement in preserving green space

With more than 30% of London’s land surface designated green, public engagement in preserving green spaces is crucial.

Having moved from town to countryside two years ago has made me realise I’d been missing out on having easy and daily access to green, open spaces and the benefits they bring. To go ‘for a walk’ we had to get in the car and drive for at least 30 minutes. Now, I can walk out of my back door and within a minute be in a field with endless views, birdsong and neatly cut footpaths, which is bliss. Even to just be able to look out of any window our house and see green is a pleasure. And thanks to our rainy climes, there’s plenty of every shade (every cloud..!).

So I can understand, writing this from my rural idyll, how in urban settings, green spaces are absolute havens, sacred places, little treats in a world of concrete and bricks. Had I discovered any local to me, maybe we’d still live in town.

Reading an article in the Guardian about 61 acres of public land in Ealing, West London, being given to QPR by Ealing Council for a new training ground – and this having upset a group of locals who do not feel they were consulted properly – is proof of the sanctity of green spaces in our towns and cities. As the author of the article writes, “Spaces like this are one of the primary reasons we move to, or stay in, London. It is among the greenest cities of its size in the world, with more than 38% of its land surface designated green and open space.” Understandable, therefore, that this community might be angry about the “obliteration” of their local green space.

My work regularly involves engaging communities in development proposals that could bring a change to their local landscape. Some people might see certain types of change as progress or at least a natural transition. Some rightly have concerns about the potential for losing or altering their beloved green spaces. Now I am a country dweller, my empathy for this issue has swelled. Absolutely I would worry if I could no longer walk my dog in a particular field in my village, or if the view from my back garden might change. How we use our green spaces contributes, I think, to our overall quality of life.

This cements my belief that we, as engagement professionals, need to start from a position of understanding why these places are special and how we can work with this knowledge to make better plans, and better places. Places that communities can continue to – or come to – love, even if they are different or new.

There are many pressures on society that manifest as pressures on our green spaces, particularly those in urban areas where they are more sporadic but equally as treasured as their countryside counterparts.

Green spaces in towns and cities may be earmarked for housing to help meet shortages of supply, and recreational land may be sold to fund services and avoid putting rates up. UK councils are under immense pressure to cut spending and to come up with new ways to create revenue without increasing rates.

Many have had their parks budgets slashed. One such council is Wandsworth in London who, when faced with a big bill to maintain the much-loved Battersea Park, decided to lease an area of it to treetop adventure company Go Ape. The council maintained that:

We are a low council tax authority and would rather generate income by leasing out the tops of trees than making people on low incomes pay more in council tax. If we can get the private sector to pay for our frontline services we want to exploit those opportunities.”

There was some local controversy about people having to pay to use an area of the park once open to all, although a new, free-to-use play area was also provided by Go Ape.

Bexley Council is selling four local areas of green space in order to save £710,000 by reducing maintenance bills associated with the upkeep of the land. The local CPRE argues that:

Small green spaces provide essential ecosystem services, such as flood prevention and climate regulation. Some of the proposed spaces to be sold are likely to be valuable pocket parks for residents … or havens for wildlife.”

Burnley Borough Council has taken a different approach, saving £120,000 a year by turning some of it’s green spaces over to semi-natural management by creating meadows, planting perennials instead of annuals, using it’s own managed wood for wood chippings and even producing honey to sell. This is all part of the Rethinking Parks programme, which Burnley joined in light of its green-space budget having to reduce from £2.5m to less than £1m between 2003 and 2017.

What links all of these examples is that changing the use of any area of public land no matter how big or small is a tricky task because green spaces can mean many things to many people. Where money has to be saved, tough decisions need to be made. The burden of such decisions should be shared with the communities whose taxes, after all, help to maintain public land. Community engagement and participatory budgeting can help to bring citizens into the heart of the decision-making process. By being involved at an early stage, local knowledge and sentiment can be woven into discussions and hopefully help Councils arrive at solutions that recognise and respect the places green spaces hold in our hearts.

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