Newcastle Parks Forum – Chair
The aim of Newcastle Parks Forum is to maintain and improve the quality and access to Newcastle’s parks and green spaces for the benefit of and use by the community.
The Communities and Local Government Committee has launched an inquiry into the future of public parks.
Country parks, city parks, heritage parks, village greens, woodland, nature reserves, patches of grass are all currently included under the ‘umbrella’ of Newcastle City Council’s Parks Department. These are mixed areas with mixed levels of use, attracting different people due to their proximity and function.
The elderly, dog walkers, young families, runners, teenagers, tourists, professionals, students, commuters, all benefit from Newcastle’s parks for organised sports and activities, events, exercise, play, quiet space or just taking the air for their health as the benefactors of land given to the people of Newcastle originally intended.
Writing last century, the psychologist Erich Fromm proposed the concept of Biophilia: a love of nature, but also a need for human beings to be in nature, with a psychological connection between the two. He suggested that the attachments humans make with plants and animals is genetically determined and is linked to our inherent dependency on the natural world for food and shelter.
Fromm argued that nature as a whole is rooted within our biology. This idea extends with the Deep Ecology Movement pioneered by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. This broader, modern theory regards nature as “a living tissue of complex inter-relationships” and reconnects human beings with nature, who in the industrialised world have become separated from it. This is to regard ecology as environmental philosophy and there are similarities here with Buddhism, Native American beliefs and other root traditions.
The benefits of time spent in nature are widely recorded and include boosts to physical, emotional and psychological healing and wellbeing. The theories of Deep Ecology and Biophilia support the argument that the issue of parks should be raised on the political agenda. The importance for the community in maintaining parks is not just for the protection of the flora and fauna, but for human beings and particularly then for those of us living in urbanised areas, to connect with ourselves and reconnect with each other in what Erich Fromm calls “Unity”.
Funding to Newcastle’s parks has reduced year on year since 2010 when all 10 of Newcastle’s park keepers’ posts were deleted. Newcastle City Council’s Health Department recognises the benefits of parks to the community and has committed funding from its budget. However, monies available to the Parks Department are paltry and barely cover the wages of the remaining Parks staff. The result of slashed funding and the absence of a permanent and skilled workforce has resulted in a lack of maintenance, overgrowth, increased litter and broken and unreplaced furniture and play equipment.
The impact of the downward spiral of the neglected presentation of Newcastle’s parks is that it leads to areas becoming or being perceived to be unsafe, being prone to rat infestation, losing the battle with Japanese Knotweed and seeing an increase in antisocial behaviour. The net result of this is that our parks will eventually become ‘no-go’ areas, rather than thriving micro-ecosystems, and the community hubs that they should be. Newcastle’s parks are not at this point yet but another 5, another 10 years of underinvestment and just maybe they will be lost for a generation, or worse.
Newcastle City Council’s Parks Department is in a process of change, moving slowly towards becoming an arms-length organisation, adopting a Mutual business model with the hope of attracting alternative funding streams. However, the potential effectiveness of this future organisation in addressing its remit and fulfilling residents’ expectations is unknown. As for the staff working at the coal face: they have to manage their increasing workload, respond to much criticism from residents, be accountable to everyone, and all with a diminished budget and limited resources.
Waving a magic wand to affect consistent, generous funding for staff and resources would solve issues for Newcastle’s parks. However, in the current economic climate the funding of non-statutory services is not prioritised and will not be in the near future. Political battles to increase funding for parks need to continue to be fought, but they alone are not the answer.
The paradigm through which the function and purpose of Newcastle’s parks is considered as an entire responsibility of Newcastle City Council, needs to shift. Retaining the transactional analysis model of relationship between residents and parks staff as ”The Council”, as the homogenous, bureaucratic headache that it can so often be is not productive. In recognising parks’ staff as individuals we can start to connect with them as people and from that connection, develop relationships from which we can start to work towards solutions.
The National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces asserts from UK-wide consultation that the biggest threat to Parks is public apathy. Public support will not, however, be gained by simple awareness-raising. So what can be done?
Parks will only exist as a political issue for Newcastle’s residents when they see and feel that they are purposeful for them. This is where increasing engagement is so important and where support needs to be invested currently, within communities.
Strong, resilient hubs for the benefit of flora, fauna and the community can be built by harnessing the passion and purpose of residents and park user groups; synthesising their intent and interest. Resource Packs to support community engagement with information on how to form Friends groups, advice on how to build activity, engage residents, how to network by linking user groups and how to be empowered to take ownership of decision-making whilst reducing dependency on the local authority for answers would be beneficial. Alongside this should be simple access to funds for groups to drive local events and activities.
As the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces is existent and already supported by grants and funding to grow from its point of origin, creating a network of communication across the UK and has already undertaken extensive research into parks, it is right that this grassroots organisation should lead on crowdsourced provision of resources to increase public engagement, to develop further and protect our green heritage and future.
Popular perception of parks is critical because the political battles that need to be fought will be dependent on community support in order to be successful. The challenge ahead for Newcastle Parks Forum is to reposition the perception of parks on the agenda of the communities they serve.