We all know that time is precious and we all tend to value our own time highly, but when it comes to parks and green spaces it's unfortunately all too easy to overlook the value of other people's time.
Friends of Parks groups, or "Friends", are local volunteers that have historically supported parks and acted as voluntary community custodians over their use; being fundraisers, influencers, conservationists, managers, and event organisers. They have also acted as the 'eyes and ears' of our parks when they come under threat or they're being mis-managed. Friends of groups are then often the glue that keeps many a park at their best, and the actions taken by these volunteers should be valued highly.
One example of a community coming together in efforts to secure the future of their local park is The Friends of Ashby Bath Grounds in Ashby de la Zouch, Leicestershire who, since 2014, have prevented non-recreational buildings being developed at this park. As part of their campaign they created and raised funds for, activities to improve awareness and accessibility of the Grounds within the community so that the space would be seen as a valued asset. This included the creation of a heritage trail with guided walks, an exhibition, a film and book produced about the Grounds, community mosaic workshops, archaeology sessions, and even the writing of a new ballad about the Grounds. Plans for development here have so far been successfully stymied or withdrawn.
We are aware of Friends of groups first forming in 1960s and '70s, but the prominence of Friends really grew in the '90s and early 2000s as a result of a funding crisis seen within public parks. Local people came to the aid of parks when they were in their worst state for years. Unfortunately, in this last decade, we have seen funding to parks again reduced, and due to continued local authority budget and resource cuts, the role of Friends is again becoming increasingly vital to the sustainable future of our parks. Evidence of this can be seen from the more active role Friends of groups are taking in fundraising for park improvements. It was estimated in 2016 that £50m is raised by park Friends of groups each year, which was more than double the amount estimated in 2014. For example, members of the Friends of Grange Park, London raised £100,000, both through grants and crowdfunding within the community, to create a new play area, accessible to all through the installation of equipment suitable for children with disabilities. Grange Park is now also protected with Fields in Trust.
In some cases, Friends have taken on more responsibility around park maintenance and management, in innovative ways. Over the last 18 years the Friends of Lordship Rec in Haringey, London have taken a derelict park, secured over £5m of grant funding, influenced the Council to ensure it is legally protected in perpetuity with Fields in Trust, and improved the entire space by building a new community and eco-hub and making many grounds improvements. Building on the success of partnership-working, the Friends and the Council are committed to an ongoing co-management of the park as a whole. As part of Nesta's Rethinking Parks project, they are also working with other Friends of groups in London and across the country to empower them to take similar action at their parks.
Things like securing funding for the 'extra' bits in a park such as benches, bins or swings, getting more people using the park through events and physical improvements such as fences or planting are clear measures of impact, but how do we value the full contribution Friends make through their time and effort? It turns out that time volunteered is a tricky thing to quantify. Traditionally, volunteering value has been calculated by looking at the cost of replacing the volunteers with paid workers, this is 'the replacement cost model'. One such calculation, created by surveying park managers across the country, estimated those precious volunteering hours by park Friends of and user groups to be worth £70m each year. It's worth noting that this 2016 figure is again more than double the £30m estimated in 2014.
This is an impressive figure, but it still doesn't really give the full picture. The problem with the replacement cost model is that it doesn't fully capture the many impacts that Friends of groups have at parks, be it the wellbeing that a visitor might get as a result of exploring a Friends-planted garden, the impact Friends-funded facilities might have on a young sports participant, or the many other such associated benefits the presence of a park, cared for by Friends, can create. The Hidden Diamonds report tried to value some of these hidden impacts when it came to volunteering in sport. The report estimated that each volunteer within sport had an additional impact on the cumulative wellbeing of sports participants to the value of £16,032 per year. The economists that aided in compiling this research, Jump X Symetrica, also undertook our Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces research. One of the things our study showed was that the Wellbeing Value associated with the frequent use of local parks and green spaces is worth £34.2 billion per year to the entire UK adult population. It's conceivable then that a portion of the health and wellbeing benefits we gain from using parks is attributable to the work of Friends of groups, in a similar way that the Hidden Diamonds report link sports participants' wellbeing to the volunteers involved.
Beyond the increased wellbeing of park visitors, the act of volunteering has further huge societal benefits [opens PDF] in terms of increased community cohesion, trust and health. On top of that, it's also been shown that it gives the volunteers themselves massive personal wellbeing benefits from meeting new people, increased employability and skills and giving a sense of purpose. For example, The Friends of Bristol's parks have joined together to form Bristol Parks Forum and work with the council to run ParkWork, a project offering experience in horticultural work to help-low skilled people in difficult circumstances to create routes to employment. The Forum has also been key partners in the formation of Bristol & Bath Parks Foundation, a charity that raises funds and supports the volunteer work in the parks across the area.
So taking all of this information on board, it's clear that the value of Friends of groups has many layers, both direct and indirect, and when taken all together they represent a massive community asset. You will have noticed that this blog is peppered with examples of the work of such groups. We've been featuring more of them all this week on our website, such as Friends of Newton Park in Greater Manchester whose determination and mediation over a two-year period were integral to convincing the council that owned the park to protect it for recreation forever with Fields in Trust as a Centenary Field. The Friends first raised this in 2017, in order to commemorate the heritage of the park, originally gifted to the community by Lt. Colonel Newton, a prominent World War I veteran.
These are just a few of the countless examples of the varied contribution that Friends of groups make and real examples like these remain a key way of demonstrating their value. As I said at the start of this piece, their work only grows in importance as our parks face grave challenges when it comes to funding and maintenance, as well as increased threats to their very existence as more green spaces are disposed of. More varied types of park management models are developing, sometimes with formalised agreements in place empowering volunteer groups to drive forward. Whilst this volunteer resource is a big help and, in some cases, vital, continued local authority leadership is much needed and there needs to be support for communities that want to play a more active role in supporting their local parks and green spaces.
It's also worth noting from the figures above that the value of Friends' volunteer hours have increased over the last few years, as has the funding they have secured for parks. Unfortunately, it's also been shown that the amount of time people volunteer in general is decreasing across the country. Volunteering is becoming more valuable, and sadly it may be getting rarer. Friends of groups are going to be crucial in developing the innovative new ways in which our green spaces survive and thrive and we could all do well to appreciate their time a little more, and perhaps join their ranks. We have partnered with Groundwork to deliver a project, Future Proof Parks, to encourage the next generation of volunteers to do just that. Let's make sure that we value their efforts.
Favourite childhood park: Whitehall Rec in Rugby - brilliant for the fact it was right opposite my house when I was growing up
Favourite local park: Gadebridge Park in Hemel Hempstead - a beautiful large park, and on top of that the council have done a great job installing a new splash park and playground here; a fantastic place to take my daughters
Favourite overseas park: Perdana Botanical Gardens in Kuala Lumpur - this is a whopping 91-hectare park with landscaped gardens, a lake, a deer park, and playground. It's an amazing green lung in this busy city
Favourite park memory: Proposing to my wife in Ravenscourt Park in Hammersmith
Favourite thing to do at the park: Taking part in running events in parks - usually a great community activity filled with positivity
David Sharman is Fields in Trust Development Manager for London and the East of England. He can be contacted by any of the below means.
t: 020 7427 2123
David Sharman is the Fields in Trust Development Manager for London and the East of England. He has been in the post since July 2015, supporting and safeguarding fields in the region, also working on active national partnership projects with the Carnegie UK Trust and the London Marathon Charitable Trust during this time. David came to Fields in Trust from an environmental and conservation background, working in project manager roles for organisations such as the BBC Wildlife Fund and Talk Action. Whilst at the BBC Wildlife Fund he helped coordinate the disbursement of £3 million of funding to conservation projects both in the UK and globally and assessed their impact. In his spare time David enjoys running and walking, particularly within Fields in Trust protected sites, and is a keen amateur genealogist.