To celebrate the launch of the Manchester Urban Institute, and to highlight the expertise of its academics in terms of urban research, MUI have joined up with Policy@Manchester to deliver a series of blogs focused on the Manchester urban area.
To safeguard the future of our cherished public parks then communities and institutions must think creatively – just as they are already doing in Manchester, says Doctor Abigail Gilmore.
- The evidence for the economic, social and environmental value of local parks, including a recent Parliamentary inquiry, is overwhelming
- Manchester’s local government, university and cultural institutions are working together to develop and to enhance public spaces
- Major initiatives in this area have been successful, with more planned
- Parks are key to building everyday participation in communities across Manchester
A recent select committee inquiry into the future of public parks highlighted the need to understand more about the role of parks within local ecologies and economies.
Having gathered opinion from over 13,000 people who completed an online questionnaire, as well as from submitted oral and written evidence through social media, the report found that although there is overwhelming evidence of the value of these spaces – and the wide range of uses to which they are put – there are major difficulties ahead.
In particular the continuing decline in local authority funding for parks is having a significant impact on their future conservation, as is the identification of new, sustainable business models.
One of the foremost challenges the report identified was the competing demands from different user groups for parks which can prevent a sense of common ownership and shared responsibility. There are also striking inequalities in the access that different socio-economic groups have to parks. For instance the report found that 20% of the most affluent groups have five times more access to parks than the 10% least affluent/most deprived.
Manchester is a good example of a city which is tackling these issues head-on. In particular the City Council is currently rolling out a new parks strategy despite the continuing pressure of funding cuts.
However whilst there has been significant investment – through funders like the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Big Lottery – plus consultation over community asset transfer and management, the large numbers of historic parks forming the ‘green lungs’ of the city region present challenges for available resources and how to best manage them.
Meanwhile here at the University of Manchester researchers and art gallery and museum staff are bringing together management and user groups, local authority officers, cultural partners, funding agencies and other stakeholders to develop community engagement in local parks.
The Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities project Understanding Everyday Participation – Articulating Cultural Values has been researching the value of parks in everyday life, alongside other public (and private) sites and participation practices.
Through mixed methods of research we have explored the history and role of parks in public policy in Manchester and Salford, and also heard and witnessed the complex negotiations over use and ownership which correspond with the challenges of maintaining access to these important public spaces.
Working with communities
The University of Manchester, The Whitworth, and the Manchester Museum have also been leading major initiatives working with their visitors and surrounding local communities to explore and develop the ways in which museum collections and resources and nearby open, green spaces can work together for audience and community development, participation and learning.
This has resulted in some incredible public engagement, such as the Whitworth Park archaeology project, which aims to uncover some of the fascinating history and archaeology of the park, and the work of the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation-funded Cultural Park Keeper which develops and coordinates engagement and well-being programmes with a focus on existing park users and new audiences.
There are also plans for a new Brunswick Park to provide a way to provide benefit to local communities living near to the University by improving access to green space.
To take this forward, a stakeholder workshop is being held later this month with a view to co-producing and publishing a practice guide useful to a wide range of stakeholders in parks including Friends’ groups, museums, arts organisations and community groups.
This joint initiative aims to identify ways to help tackle these challenges, improve access to these community assets, and create value through participation in people’s everyday lives.