Pocket parks: making cities friendlier, greener and more resilient

derbyshire street pocket park 2

Derbyshire Street Pocket Park, London. Image: Greysmith Associates

By James Carson

Last summer, a report for the Heritage Lottery Fund offered mixed news on the state of public parks in the UK. While increasing numbers of parks were reported to be in good condition, and visitor numbers and levels of satisfaction also rising, the study found evidence that public parks are now facing many significant challenges:

“As public spending has fallen parks have faced large cuts in their funding and staffing over the last three years, and these cuts are expected to continue over much of the rest of this decade.”

It’s heartening, then, to see that a project aiming to create new green spaces is now bearing fruit. This month, the Mayor of London announced the successful delivery of 100 pocket parks across the capital.

Pocket parks are small areas of public space with trees and greenery, places to sit and relax and spaces for people to socialise. They also contribute to making the city friendlier, greener and more resilient, and have been instrumental in contributing to public health in low income areas.

Pocket parks in London

London’s pocket parks scheme, taking in 26 boroughs, has benefited from £2m in funding from the Greater London Authority. The programme has supported local communities and volunteers in rejuvenating and transforming small patches of uncultivated and overlooked land into lush green spaces for everyone to use and enjoy. Some examples give a flavour of the varied and inventive nature of pocket parks:

  • The edible bus stop
    London’s first pocket park provided a blueprint for making small-scale green infrastructure interventions a reality across the capital. The park was created beside the bus stop on Landor Road, Stockwell, by a team of ‘guerrilla gardeners’ working with the local community. This once forgotten space has now been transformed into a thriving garden and neighbourhood hub.
  • Derbyshire Street Pocket Park, Bethnal Green
    This project transformed a dead-end road that attracted anti-social behaviour and fly-tipping into a safe and vibrant community space, incorporating a rain garden, seating areas, a cycle lane and permeable paving.
  • Canning Town Caravanserai
    The current plot of this project, near Canning Town station, is due to be reclaimed by a developer, leaving the community without a permanent space. In response the Pocket Parks team has embraced the idea of moveable growing spaces. The resulting ‘mobile parks’ will provide areas that have limited park access with gardening space and activities.
  • Hackney pocket park
    Residents of Hackney’s Trelawney estate generated many of the ideas that has resulted in this new pocket park, including a space for local people to meet and improved wildlife habitats. The planting scheme acknowledges the site as the location of what was in the 19th century the largest hothouse in the world, with an unrivalled collection of palms, orchids and ferns, which helped influence planting in the rest of the UK.

Pocket parks beyond London

The pocket parks approach is not confined to the UK capital. There are good examples elsewhere in the country and overseas.

In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the city council and business development company NE1 have been working together on pocket parks. One original idea is Quayside Seaside. Complete with deck chairs, palm trees and buckets and spades, creates a space where the visitors can unwind, build sandcastles and enjoy a free game of volleyball. Originally opened in the summer of 2011, the installation has proved to be so popular that it has become an annual fixture in Newcastle’s calendar of events.

Further afield, pocket parks are providing residents and visitors with oases inside the concrete jungle.

Complementing, not competing

The growth of pocket parks shouldn’t obscure the need to look after our larger public parks. As the Heritage Lottery Fund report observed, “they are deeply rooted in the physical fabric, spirit and identity of thousands of places across the UK”.  Pocket parks should be seen as complementing rather than competing with these bigger green spaces, in helping to make the pressures of urban life a little less stressful for us all.


Enjoy this article? Read our recent blog on Designing new wildlife-friendly housing developments.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

We’ve made some of our member briefings freely available. View a selection of our environment publications on our website.

Who pays for parks? Are ‘green benefit districts’ the answer?

1402358_50cedb8a

Southwark Park, London. Photograph: Mike Faherty. Licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

The benefits of urban parks are well told. Quite apart from their environmental impact, green spaces really do make a difference to our quality of life: from health to housing, community cohesion to crime prevention, city parks generate spin-offs extending far beyond their green acres.

They also cost money. Even before the economic crisis of 2008, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment was highlighting the challenges of maintaining urban parkland:

“We risk a never-ending cycle of large areas of poor quality urban green space that are restored with public money, then decline, then need more public investment to restore them to a good standard.”

In the age of austerity, those challenges have intensified: between 2010/11 and 2012/13 local authority spending on open spaces in England was cut by an average of 10.5%. Now, more than ever, local authorities have to think more imaginatively about sources of revenue and capital funding for urban green spaces.

Last summer, the Policy Exchange think tank came up with some ideas for attracting more money to maintain urban parks. These included:

  • extending the Gift Aid scheme to community civic improvement groups;
  • requiring new green spaces to include a long term funding plan;
  • allowing communities and local authorities to apply for funding to employ park keepers in those spaces identified as crime hotspots.

The report also encouraged the idea of green benefit districts. Also known as park improvement districts, these are urban parks, gardens, and green spaces whose upkeep is funded in part by a tax on nearby residents.

It’s an approach that echoes the concept of business improvement districts, defined areas where participating businesses pay a levy for security, landscaping and other improvements to their trading environment.

Some communities in San Francisco are already exploring the idea, teaming up with housing developers to establish a green benefit district that aims to protect and enhance 25 small parks, community gardens and ad hoc recreation spaces.

In the UK, green benefit districts might prove to be a harder sell. Many people feel that they are already contributing quite enough for the maintenance of parks through the council tax, and the Policy Exchange report stressed that the idea would not be appropriate in deprived areas.

But the authors suggested that home owners living near parks might be persuaded to pay more for amenities that raise the value of their properties.  An analysis of price increases of homes in south London before and after a £2.7m regeneration of Southwark Park revealed a significant increase in prices of properties located within 100m of the park. The report could not conclude that this increase was due to renovation of the park, but suggested that the link between green space quality and property prices was worth further investigation.

The green benefit districts idea has received a cool response from coalition ministers, who suggest that cutting waste and inefficiency in local government is preferable to additional taxation. But, with the prospect of councils’ budgets being squeezed further in the coming years, the idea of green benefit districts might well take root.


 

Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on urban green space. Items of interest include:

The contribution of green and open space in public health and wellbeing

Future parks (Birmingham City Council seeking NHS funding for upkeep of parks)

Time to re-think parks (innovative income generation for public parks)

Park land: how open data can improve our urban green spaces

Rethinking parks: exploring new business models for parks in the 21st century

N.B. Abstracts and access to subscription journal articles are only available to members.