Following the release of our 2020 Green Space Index findings yesterday, we're delighted to welcome a guest blog from Graham Duxbury, Chief Executive of Groundwork, who reflects on the importance of parks and green spaces in the current times as well as the need to ensure equity of access in the future.
The Green Space Index finds that, despite being the most universal of our public services, access to parks and green spaces is not currently equally distributed - nearly 2.7 million people do not currently have a publicly accessible local green space within a ten-minute walk of home, a figure that is set to rise over the coming years.
The bizarre and unsettling experience of living through lockdown has taught us many things about ourselves. In my case it's confirmed my suspicions that I'd make a lousy teacher and that home baking is not always the stress-busting and family bonding experience it's cracked up to be.
As a society we've come to realise what we can do without - the extra trip to the shops for those things we previously felt were essential or the day spent travelling across the country for a work meeting that can be done in half the time by video. Conversely, we've also realised what it is we really value, especially when we feel anxious - physical contact with friends and family, visits to the gym, art gallery or live music venues, daytrips and holidays.
The role of green spaces in keeping us physically fit and mentally well has come to the fore during the crisis. We have been prescribed a daily dose of nature as one of the best ways of coping with the stress and anxiety of the lockdown - and doctors have reminded us that regular outdoor exercise can help ward off the worst impacts of the virus itself.
Our Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces research valued the physical health and mental wellbeing benefits of such spaces for communities at more than £34 billion each year.
For the majority of people, the restorative and energising benefits of regular contact with nature are gained either through spending time in a private garden or visiting a local park. Both have featured prominently in prime ministerial announcements as our gradual emergence from lockdown is measured by what we can do where. We can now enjoy a socially distanced picnic or kickabout in the local park and, as of Monday, see friends and family members in private gardens.
What these announcements mask is that for some people in our society, these aren't the return of cherished freedoms, but an ongoing reminder of what they lack. One in eight homes in England has no garden with the average figure much higher among black and minority ethnic families than white households. Research has also consistently shown those who have most to gain from regular visits to their local park - i.e. those most at risk of physical and mental ill-health - are precisely the groups who visit green spaces the least. Again, there is a clear social gradient with those in disadvantaged areas or from minority ethnic communities reporting fewer visits.
The pandemic has served both to highlight and exacerbate this inequity - graphically demonstrating the extent of health inequalities in society and providing a stark reminder that for some people in some communities green spaces may be close by but remain off limits. For some the issues are systemic - where parks are located, how they can be accessed and whether or not they have decent facilities. For others the barriers are about relevance or confidence - perceptions of who and what parks are for, how people behave in them and how to make the most of them.
Our 2020 Green Space Index finds that nearly 2.7 million people in Britain do not have a publicly acessible local green space within a ten-minute walk of home, a figure that is set to grow.
Explore the full findings
The process of unlocking the country is seen by many as a moment of national 're-set', a chance to build the positive aspects of the pandemic response into a new normal – re-discovered respect for our health and care workers, increased levels of community volunteering and greater appreciation of the natural environment. However, we also know this will need to achieved while we count the cost of the shutdown - with local authorities particularly stretched as they remain in emergency response mode while coping with the loss of business rates, tourism revenues and commercial income. The danger is that the economic burden also falls hardest on those areas that were already struggling with high costs in terms of health, social care and acute services for the most vulnerable.
If we are to have a 'green recovery', then we need to make sure that our parks and urban green spaces are seen as an integral part of the plan - protected and promoted so that they can play their full part in addressing health inequalities and building the resilience of local communities. This needs to be more than just telling councils to prioritise resources - it requires national vision and drive, embedding green infrastructure into future health and care plans and engaging a diverse range of civil society organisations in breaking down barriers so that parks re-find their original purpose as green lungs for those in our towns and cities without access to their own corner of Eden.
Graham Duxbury is Chief Executive of Groundwork.
Graham Duxbury was appointed Groundwork's national Chief Executive in March 2014. He has nearly 20 years' experience of helping public and voluntary sector organisations reach new audiences and deliver strategic communications and development campaigns. He was previously Groundwork's Director of Development - responsible for building national relationships and partnerships, generating income, developing national programmes and leading on policy and strategic communications. Graham joined Groundwork UK in 1998, prior to which he undertook a number of communications roles in the voluntary, public and private sectors.