Looking back through the now archived Heckler, it’s occurred to me I’ve written a fair bit about parks. On the one hand, I’ve covered the threats to our parks and open spaces from councils who don’t seem to value them and on the other hand, I’ve celebrated those residents who do value them and will fight any threat to them tooth and nail. This shows the clash in values between councils who take an overly utilitarian view of parks as assets to be squeezed / burdens to to paid for on the one hand and on the other, residents who not just appreciate but love their local parks for the wide range of non-material benefits they provide.
There’s also the aspect of parks offering ample opportunities for leisure that don’t involve spending money – something that must be anathema to those who have totally brought into the notion that every aspect of our lives should be subject to the ‘discipline’ of the market. So, even after forty years of a neo-liberalism that’s tried to marketise pretty much every aspect of our lives, a lot of people seem to be refusing to allow this to happen. What I want to do is draw these strands together in a bid to add to the discussion about how we, the residents, can really start to take back control of our parks and open spaces from councils who can’t be trusted to look after them for us.
Sweating our parks as assets
Forty years of neo-liberalism and ten years of austerity have left many of our parks and open spaces on their knees. Underfunded and neglected, local authorities who have brought into the neo-liberal mindset are increasingly looking to parks as assets to be squeezed either through allowing them to be used by commercial event organisers or flogging them off piecemeal or wholesale to developers. In such a climate, parks are not valued by local authorities for the non-tangible, non-material benefits they can bring, instead, they’re seen as a burden unless a way of squeezing revenue out of them can be found.
There are numerous examples of parks being hired out to event organisers for a tidy sum. Finsbury Park in north London has pretty much become an event venue for hire throughout most of the summer: Music festivals damaging Finsbury Park, say campaigners. In between these events, the locals have to tolerate a park where large areas have been churned into a mud bath / reduced to a dust bowl. Also, as pretty much all of these events take place during the summer, there are long stretches when residents are effectively denied access to their park at a time when they would really enjoy being able to use it. All in the name of making money for the council.
At this point, I want to draw a distinction between local parks being flogged off to the highest paying commercial event organiser and those that are used for genuinely community focused events. The one example of this that springs to mind is the community run Hardie Park in Stanford-le-Hope. Events staged there are run by and for the community and during and at the end of each one, volunteers will meticulously clean the park of litter. I’ve put in some shifts myself over the last few years doing this:)
Then there’s the slivers of the larger parks or entire pocket parks that elements in local authorities think they can get away with flogging off for housing. An approach loved by the soulless bean counters that inhabit the darker recesses of our council offices but one that residents are always justifiably up in arms against. Regular readers of the Heckler will be aware this is something I’ve frequently posted about: Fighting for our green spaces.
Open spaces and parks are there for a reason
When Basildon was first laid out, parks and more informal green spaces were planned in as an integral part of the new town. When the estates in South Ockendon and Harold Hill were laid out in the late 1940s and early 1950s, parkland was planned in to give the new residents moving out from inner London opportunities for formal and informal recreation. Granted, there was more than a hint of patronising paternalism that informed the aspirations of some of the planners in that era but when it came to a recognition of the benefits of parkland, they got it spot on.
There are numerous studies that show the benefits of green spaces in built up areas: The benefits of green space. Also, there’s this: UK parks deliver £34bn of health benefits, suggests report.
I shouldn’t even have to explain this but feel I have to… Our parks are there to provide accessible recreation space for anything from a playground for the kids to somewhere to chill out on a summer day. They’re spaces where through play, kids learn how to interact and socialise with each other. They’re spaces where someone from a busy, crowded house can get away on their own for some peace and quiet while enjoying the rustle of leaves in the trees and the birdsong. They’re spaces where the elderly can have a gentle stroll, a sit down and a chat. They’re spaces where people in a neighbourhood can get together for anything from an informal gathering to a resident organised event or mini-festival. They’re both social spaces and places where we can reconnect with nature.
In a civilised society, public open space would be valued for the often intangible, non-material benefits it brings to surrounding communities, not regarded as an asset to be flogged off willy-nilly to developers. With local authorities increasingly regarding them as financial assets and disregarding the negative impacts of the loss of open spaces, the values that constitute a civilised society are being disregarded.
The subversive aspect of parks and open spaces
Parks are the stage for the kind of activities that make a neighbourhood a pleasure to live in, even though they contribute nothing to the bottom line. The kind of activity that doesn’t involve people having to spend money. The kind of spaces where people in the neighbourhood around the park can organise a range of activities and events that bring people together and play a part in building community solidarity. All pretty much for free.
The problem is that we live in an economic system that does not like people running or lounging around in parks, socialising and not spending money. The system’s definition of leisure is something you have to jump in a car and travel miles to, pay an entrance fee and let someone else do the entertaining. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that if that’s what people want.
What gets me is the way the system values the kind of leisure you have to shell out a lot of dosh for and has it in for the free kind you can have in your local park. What really gets me is the way the system pushes us towards the kind of leisure you have to fork out for by flogging off our open spaces to housing developers! Which is why I think those elements in local government who have succumbed to the neo-liberal mindset that every public asset has to have a capacity to generate revenue, hate parks and either want them to become commercial event venues or flog them off to housing developers.
Using and doing what you can to support your local park is a way to undermine this utilitarian mindset. Let’s start thinking about the subversive role your local park can play in overturning this penny pinching mindset and how they can be turned into genuine community assets…
People aren’t mugs – they can see what’s going on and like us, are joining the dots because they value community and being close to nature. Well, the fightback against the bastards who want to deny that to us is escalating – let’s see where we can take it…
This isn’t NIMBYism as explained at length here: ‘Legitimate concerns?’ Yes, they are legitimate! Ever denser housing and the consequent loss / lack of open space has a detrimental impact on mental health and leads to rising levels of stress. With the way things are going in the world, life is already way too stressful! On the other hand, resident run open spaces have a positive impact on mental and physical health, not to mention community spirit: Staying grounded…
This is about the kind of society we want to live in. A choice between one that values the intangible, non-monetary benefits of public open spaces for health, well-being and community spirit or an increasingly dystopian hell hole that puts a monetary value on everything it can and trashes everything else.