Threat to parks is a threat to nation’s physical activity, select committee hears

Smithard said open spaces contributed £2.2bn to the national economy

The threat to the existence of public parks is a threat to the nation’s physical and mental health, a select committee has been told by several experts. 

While 2.6bn visits were made to Britain’s 27,000 public green spaces last year, council budget cuts have had an impact on their maintenance, with funding falling from £3.1m to £2.6m over the last two years. 

According to ukactive strategic projects director, Will Smithard, parks are “fundamental assets” that are “key to breaking down the barriers to activity people face”, such as cost and time. 

Citing a University of Exeter study, he said that outdoor exercise delivers an “estimated £2.2bn of health benefits” to English adults each year, and parks should not be overlooked in terms of the role they play in this. 

“Parks are easy to access and free to use, so they have a major role to play in overcoming the physical inactivity crisis that we are currently facing,” Smithard added. “We often talk about physical benefits of outdoor exercise, but the mental health benefits are equally important and something that we shouldn’t lose sight of when assessing the importance of parks.” 

Smithard’s evidence came during a Communities and Local Government Select Committee on the Future of Public Parks Inquiry. 

He highlighted initiatives such as Green Gym, ParkLives and parkrun as effect methods of people using parks to stay active. 

Using the dispute between the latter and Stoke Gifford Parish Council over the use of the local park without paying toward maintenance, Smithard stressed that local authorities had to be supported so that parks could host a “broad range of activities”. 

Sport and Recreation Alliance chief executive Emma Boggis, who was also giving evidence, agreed but stated that a distinction should be made between voluntary organisations like parkrun and other physical activity groups aiming to make a profit. 

Ultimately, though, dialogue with the local authority and the ability to do local assessments was crucial, she said. 

Boggis added that public green spaces needed to better promote the facilities they had and schemes they were running in order to reach the greatest number of people in the locality. She highlighted a programme devised by the Lawn Tennis Association and Tennis For Free, which has seen a number of local courts opened up, as a demonstration of good practice.

First published on www.spotsmanagement.co.uk, written by Matthew Campelli, 26 October 2016