How to save parks and other urban green spaces

City parks boost local economies, home values, the environment and public health, so why are they underfunded?

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One of my walking routes into FT HQ in central London takes me under chestnut trees and oaks, past hellebores, snowdrops and early narcissi where green woodpeckers forage for ants, and over a bridge where willows frame a long view of distant buildings. Lucky me, lucky every city resident with access to decent green space — but how long will it last?

Funding of urban parks on both sides of the Atlantic is fading as fast as cherry blossom in June.

And while urban parks lubricate property prices and local business, they struggle to make a penny for their own futures. The cherry on this particular cake comes from Donald Trump, who trademarked the name “Central Park” in the 1990s but we’ll come back to that.

The UK government has made swingeing funding cuts to the Royal Parks, an organisation that manages 5,000 acres from St James’s by Buckingham Palace to Richmond in the west. Lesser known urban parks face similar funding onslaughts as a Heritage Lottery Fund report in 2014 outlined: “We predict that the quality and condition of many parks will dramatically decline if action is not taken now to address this emerging risk.” It found that 45 per cent of local authorities were considering selling parks or transferring their management; 86 per cent of park managers had reported cuts to revenue budgets since 2010; and 81 per cent of council park departments had lost skilled management staff since 2010.

The story is the same in the US, a notable exception being New York’s Central Park. After recovering from its 1970s drug-infested dereliction it is thriving on private-public enterprise. Can this model work for other parks?

In 1980 Central Park neighbour Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, landscape architect Doug Blonsky and others created the Central Park Conservancy (CPC) to clean up the park, add some security and release it from dependency on city taxes and remote bureaucracy. Today the CPC raises 75 per cent of the park’s $65m annual operating budget and looks after all aspects of its maintenance, as well as capital improvements and restorations. Philanthropy is the main funding source. As Blonsky, CPC chief executive, points out: “Central Park is one of the few places where you can give philanthropically and . . . get to see and use the return.”

That is great for a high-profile park in one of the world’s richest cities. What about more modest urban parks?

Doug Blonsky, chief executive of New York’s Central Park Conservancy © D Dipasupil/Getty Images

Yale University, under the weather eye of Colleen Murphy-Dunning and Mark Bomford, has been looking at some ingenious new ways of valuing, maintaining, conserving and funding US parks; and in the UK a host of organisations, from the Garden History Society to the Heritage Lottery Fund, have been doing the same.

For instance, in the UK, Beam Parklands Partnership Project has created a park-cum-flood management system in east London. Floodwater flows into the brownfield site during storms and, when flooding subsides, the area reverts to being a wetland park for residents. It is funded by organisations committed to flood prevention.

In other words, when urban parks are valued for other qualities — such as storm control, carbon dioxide conversion, wildlife diversity, noise dampening and offsetting city pollution — new funding sources sometimes materialise.

If urban parks care for the environment, they also care for public health. I have lost count of the number of respected research papers that cite green space as being key to mental and physical wellbeing. Natural England, the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, estimates that if everyone in the country had easy access to green space, it would save the healthcare system £2.1bn per annum.

In Birmingham, Alabama, the theory has translated into a $10m investment for parks from the local health authority to address the fact that 66 per cent of the city’s adults are obese or overweight.

So a few authorities are coming up with some imaginative funding. Yale, for example, has created a couple of model farms where local people can learn everything from growing their own food to tapping maple syrup and keeping bees. The university also helps people create parks from derelict land so that children no longer have to play in the street. Funding comes from a mix of federal, state and university sources.

Then there is straight philanthropy. In Louisville, Kentucky, entrepreneur Dan Jones has co-founded 21st Century Parks, a public-private, not-for-profit group, with the aim of creating 4,000 acres of new parkland. And in Tulsa, Oklahoma, energy and banking tycoon George Kaiser has donated $350m to fund a park created from 100 acres of waterfront along the Arkansas river.

And in Grand Rapids, Michigan, residents have voted to contribute an average of $45 a year per household to upgrade and maintain the city’s parks.

Children fishing at Floyds Fork, a park created by 21st Century Parks © The Parklands of Floyds Fork

Perhaps developers should be forced to pay for urban parks. Donald Trump recognised the value of association with Central Park in the 1990s when he trademarked the name and used it to help him flog everything from beds to chandeliers.

Trump is an extreme case but he is not the first to recognise the value of association with green space. In 1806 John Nash was commissioned to design Regent’s Park in London. The park was the bit that would help achieve tremendous prices for Nash’s villas. Just down the road, Argent, which is in charge of the 67-acre redevelopment of King’s Cross, has created small parks, green roofs and a freshwater pool with water filtered by the plants. A splash in the ocean, perhaps, but these parks are created and run without the taxpayer having to fork out. On the other hand, there is the Walkie-Talkie skyscraper with its car-frying tendencies and top-floor “public park”, where access is a matter of pre-booking a timed visit. The park is rumoured to be one of the reasons that this appalling eyesore was allowed.

Volunteers on the Yale Sustainable Food Project © Yale Sustainable Food Project

Attractive parks pump up local economies. The CPC estimates that the “Central Park effect” boosts the New York economy by $1.045bn a year. In London Knight Frank estimates that property to the south of Hyde Park, for instance, carries a 220 per cent premium.

Unfortunately, these long-term arguments won’t wash with the politicians and their officers doling out the money. As the Royal Parks has discovered.

Six months ago Apurv Bagri, who chairs the Royal Parks’ board, wrote: “Despite the immense popularity of the parks and the key role they play in London’s tourism industry and ecology, we continue to face ongoing reductions in our government grant. The organisation now self-generates over 60 per cent of its running costs [but] there is a large maintenance backlog, which now stands at around £56m.”

Central Park, Manhattan © Danita Delimont/Getty Images

This deficit is the reason for Hyde Park’s ghastly Winter Wonderland, which puts 13 per cent of the park out of use for two months a year to all those who would like to use it in the way it was intended. The grass barely has time to recover before the unpeaceful, un-bucolic rock concerts begin. Effectively, one chunk of the park is not open to anyone who wants to use it for peace, fresh air, greenery and respite from the city.

The Royal Parks is in a difficult position but it has options. The Queen could cough up. The Crown does not pay a halfpenny for the rolling acres which are manicured right up to Her Majesty’s front door and which give her splendid views across London.

More money for all urban parks could be generated from philanthropy, and from non-intrusive activities. Perhaps Kim Wilkie’s genius at London’s Natural History Museum could be repeated at Hyde Park. His fundraising shop and restaurant is being built under an area which will effectively become a public park. Oxford Botanic Garden’s brilliant low-maintenance border also offers a model for lower maintenance costs without lowering aesthetic standards.

Joggers in Richmond Park, London © Peter Phipp/Getty Images

It is possible that the proposed merger of the Royal Parks’ management and the money-raising Royal Parks Foundation will help give Hyde Park new direction and resources. As the CPC’s Doug Blonsky points out, those who give to parks like to see a clear connection between the people receiving donations and those using them.

Money, that glorious gardening tool, is critical now that more than half the world’s population lives in towns and cities. We just need to realise the true value of parks. Where Trump leads . . . 

Jane Owen is editor of House & Home. This article is a version of a talk she will give at the Saïd Business School in Oxford on February 11 for the Oxford Botanic Garden

Photographs: Getty Images; The Parklands of Floyds Fork; The University of Oxford Botanic Garden; Kim Wilkie; Yale Sustainable Food Project

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