Lately, our ears have been ringing to the mantra of ‘follow the science’. Andrew Harland, a director of LDA Design, called on the landscape profession to do the same in a recent discussion about park design and diversity.
“As professionals, we need to be bolder in urging clients to factor in time before a project begins so that we can properly understand local needs and aspirations,” Andrew argued. “We also need more investment in post-completion usage.”
Andrew was responding to Bridget Snaith’s – Shape Architects and City University – research into lower levels of park usage by people from Black, Asian or Ethnic Minority backgrounds during a Future of London discussion, supported by LDA Design and the GLA. Andrew described the presentation as an urgent rallying cry for greater diversity within the profession.
Carole Wright, community gardener; Dan Cook of the Landscape Institute; Mary Karooma-Brooker, RB Greenwich; Rowan Longhurst of Engie and Our Parklife; children and families consultant Trina Lynskey; Koen Rutten, TCPA; and disability consultant Ossie Stuart shared expert and lived experience as the panel talked of the opportunities to ensure park life becomes part of everyone’s everyday.
The discussion raised issues ranging from taste, visibility and safety, which might mean different things to different people, to adequate spaces for dogs to be off lead and away from people. All called for engagement processes to be much wider and more inclusive so that a variety of voices, which properly reflect the make-up of the surrounding area, are heard and acted upon, shaping design through a groundswell of local activism and interest.
During lockdown, the role of parks and urban green space has faced fresh scrutiny, with access to green space widely seen as more than just a ‘nice to have’. We’ve seen how for many, especially those without gardens, green space is a life saver. Parks have become our gyms and our kitchens, our rehearsal studios, village halls and youth clubs. Footfall is high. It is perhaps as the Victorians always intended.
But what has also become apparent is that access to parks and green space is not equal, with the greater likelihood of parks being within walking distance of more affluent areas. Research by CABE Space as far back as 10 years ago found that in those communities with more than 40% of people from BAME backgrounds there was 11 times less green space and what space was available was of a poorer quality. This lack of quality is critical, with many people from diverse backgrounds feeling reluctant to use green spaces if they are not well maintained.
We know that investment in green infrastructure costs a fraction of other kinds of development and reaps significant benefits in terms of physical and mental health and wellbeing improvements. But long before Covid-19 struck, park budgets had been slashed. They now face further threats as lucrative park events have been cancelled and purse strings tighten in light of the pandemic.
Ring fencing, and where possible, increasing investment will be key. Making the case for more urban green spaces within easy reach and more diverse green spaces has to be made now. Further cuts can only lead to a decline in quality and access, and a drop-off in the kinds of diversity in design – of scale, character and activity – that are needed if parks are to call out more strongly to a wider and more ethnically diverse audience.
Parks and green space: does everyone feel welcome? Watch now.
Photo: Burgess Park / Helena Smith