The State of Parks: Learning from Lordship Rec

Earlier this week, on a fresh sunny early April morning, I wait outside Turnpike Lane tube station for Dave Morris, Chair and London and South East representative of the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces (the umbrella organisation for the UKs 6,000+ local Friends of Parks groups).  I’m on his patch and have come to visit and find out more about his local park Lordship Rec.  Wandering down the residential streets towards the park, Dave picks rubbish out of hedges as we go.  “Can’t stand it.  No excuse“. Yep, too true, I agreed.  As we walk and litter-collect, Dave starts to tell me the story of community engagement, empowerment and ambition that is the story of this park over the last decade. The vision for this Haringey recreation ground as he now articulates it, was disarmingly simple; to achieve more for everyone, shaped by local people.  This means more wildlife, more recognition of historic features, more play areas, more paths and signposting and more amenities.

Back in 2010 £3.8 million was awarded to Lordship Rec as part of HLF and Big Lottery’s Parks for People Scheme.  Haringey Council contributed over £3 million in capital and running costs and additional funds have been obtained from the Environment Agency and Greater London Authority. Last year almost 900,000 people visited the park, three times higher than a decade ago.

The 23-hectare park, known by locals as ‘The Rec’, was opened in 1932 and is one of the few open spaces serving a densely populated inner urban area that includes the adjacent Broadwater Farm Estate.  It is a much used and locally loved park, with the busiest Green Gym I think I’ve ever seen.  It has some unique and distinctive features, not least the first ever Model Traffic Area (Pathé 1938 newsreel here),  a pioneering education facility now restored.

I think it’s worth retelling the story of how the park has evolved over the last 15 years.

Like many urban parks, the 80s and 90s were decades of decline and under-investment. In the mid 2000s, Haringey Council tried to persuade the Friends of Lordship Rec that the park would benefit from a makeover from a company seeking to offload several tons of subsoil from the new Wembley Stadium construction site.  They could, so the thinking and vision of the powers-that-be went, re-landscape half the park instantly and renovate all the paths, at limited cost.  What a gift!?  The Friends group considered this carefully but in the end  decided to fight this tooth and nail.  They weren’t ready, it was still early days for them as a group and local force.  They didn’t know what the vision for the future should be yet.  So they said no, very firmly.  To the Council’s credit, they stepped back and the subsoil went elsewhere.  The Friends regrouped and they and the council committed to ‘follow the vision, not the money’.

They worked hard to imagine the future of their park.  The Friends of Lordship Rec, like voluntary organisations and resident associations across the land, are formed from an alliance of the willing; committed people, not least Dave Morris, who give their time and expertise to matters they most care about. They worked closely with other user groups and the Council, reviewed the management of the park, sat on the project and design Board and co-developed the Parks for People bid.

In the last three years, the Friends membership has increased from 300 to 1400 members (though, as Dave puts it, that doesn’t necessarily mean more people at meetings or higher turnout in poor weather!)  The park’s Hub cafe and community centre, is a base for a wide range of independent community groups, including 20 dedicated park user groups for all interests; wildlife, walking, cycling, performing arts, football etc. Dave speaks of a co-mangement principle, where council and Friends groups work together and community participation is central to every area of park life and decision making.   I encountered this, in spades, during my visit. Community involvement has shaped the whole park; from local organisation Rockstone Alley’s cycling workshop beside the bike track and the crowd-funded Roof Terrace and wildlife planting at the Hub to the moving memorial to local residents (who died in the tragic bombing of Downhills Shelter during the Blitz in WW2) and the Herculean work to uncover the ‘forgotten’ and culverted River Moselle so local people will be aware of the river’s history and its role as an important local watercourse.

Dave had told me that they had always wanted Lordship Rec to show what could be possible. For him, community involvement should be a key driver for demand for investment and Green Flag should be the standard across the board, throughout the UK.  I completely agree, our aspirations should be sky-high.  He spoke about empowering communities and how important it is for the Friends group to be strong and full of initiative;  “Engagement is fine, it’s a start.  But empowerment, that’s the thing”  None of it would have happened, you see, without people power.

But people power alone is not enough.  Dave is uncompromising in his stance that parks should be a statutory service.  For him, this is clearly political and parks are a physical reminder of the big issues of today.

“Those seeking alternatives to a statutory duty have recognised there’s no silver bullet available  in fact there’s not even a wooden bullet.  Recent governments have been causing the current under-funding crisis and park lovers need to put a rocket under the government.  They big up the Lottery funding but this is just taxation in reverse, with the poor punters being used to subsidise the government and its tax cuts for the rich.  The recommendations in the recent Parliamentary Select Committee Report do not go far enough.  Yes, the report set out the situation and challenges well, but, for me, its recommendations ran pitifully short of what is needed. Parks should simply be recognised as a statutory service and be backed by adequate public funding.  There are ways to find the money.  Its about political will.”

We talk about innovation in parks, not least the significant leadership role HLF has had in this field, including Rethinking Parks. He is at pains to point out that he is not anti-innovation.  He makes a compelling case for the unique contribution and place parks have in our national psyche and there is much we agree on.  However, parks are, he believes, in danger of being driven by different agendas.  Whilst he believes that money earmarked for statutory services including health, flood control, transport crime prevention and climate change mitigation should logically go into parks as well, he believes it is vital that our struggling Local Authority Parks services should be properly funded and in control of the budgets and decision-making.   So we talk about how you can’t compare parks with their incredible range of benefits, to any other service.  He observes that generally only Friends groups and parks staff care for them on their own terms, have an agenda which is 100% park and that is what they need.  Of course, whether we live in an age where what we need is still achievable is another matter.   It reminds me of past conversations with Ken Shone, who was for a long time Chair of the Friends of Whitworth Park.  Very sadly, Ken recently died, but his love, ambition and tenacity for his park in Moss Side, live on.

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Parks are highly contested spaces.  I’ve become increasingly interested in them over the last decade, leading park-based programming, festivals and partnerships and originating an alternative approach to engaging communities – The Cultural Park Keeper at the Whitworth.  I’m currently working with AHRC’s research programme Understanding Everyday Participation to consider future-thinking for cultural organisations aligned to parks and green spaces.   They are the most democratic (and maybe even the most creative) public space I know.  It’s why I love them.

Alongside many others, Dave and the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces campaigned long and hard for a national enquiry into public parks. He has high hopes that the enquiry has helped mobilise the sector and that the various key green space organisations and the new UK Parks Alliance will champion green spaces together.   I really hope he is right.  Time will tell.  Until then, I owe Dave Morris and Lordship Rec a debt of thanks.  I leave with a renewed ambition to play my part in securing a future in which our green spaces offer more (for everyone), are better supported and their beauty, creativity and care is fully valued.  Its the least we all deserve.

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