Parks in a Pandemic

Jim Roberts reacts to the recent  controversy over the use of public parks during the Covid-19 crisis.

Our public parks were both a blessing and a battleground on the first sunny weekend of spring this year.

People flocked to their nearest park for some much-needed respite from weeks of tough, but necessary isolation. The need for a walk in the park was especially acute in major cities where so many residents live in shoebox flats with no gardens or balconies of their own.

Current government guidelines say you can leave your home for ‘one form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk, or cycle’. Many people thus welcomed the weekend’s warm weather by ‘exercising’ in public parks.

This caused a commotion in the news and on social media, where every image of a picnic or an impromptu game of football sparked a feverish debate. Are we carelessly flouting the social distancing norms that are meant to save lives and ease the pressure on the NHS? Or, how can elitist politicians with sumptuous back gardens lecture the flat-dwelling masses for taking a walk in the park after weeks of incarceration?

Matters were made worse by a steady stream of anecdote and indignation on social media. Depending on who you read and when, our parks were either over-run by selfish sunbathers or they were an indispensable resource for people who generally kept their social distance and played by all the rules.

Lambeth Council has since made headlines by closing Brockwell Park.

I’m lucky. I have a small garden. I can stroll outside as often as I like. My kids can jump on their trampoline. But many don’t have that luxury. A local park is their garden and a playground for their children. It is their breath of fresh air. For access to be restricted to ‘one form of exercise per day’ is a difficult pill to swallow.

The whole episode has prompted a few reflections about public parks in the near and the long term.

To keep our beloved parks open through the lockdown, we need to change the way they are marshalled and managed. If parks were previously just  amenities for residents, they have become – in today’s peculiar circumstances – destinations for a much larger market. Councils are thus learning a hard lesson in destination management: congestion is as much a factor of dwell time as it is a function of visits. Last weekend’s issue was not the fact that so many people visited their nearest park – it’s the fact that too many of them stayed to relax, have a picnic, and catch some rays.

(And, no, it doesn’t matter that most of those people were spread out and social distancing anyway. Once you adopt a permissive attitude to extended dwell time in parks, it won’t take long for the market to start rationing access by its own means, similar to the way the market – left to its own devices – determined who got all the toilet roll and pasta before supermarkets put rules in place.)

People should be allowed – even encouraged – to use their local park through this crisis. But they mustn’t bunch or loiter unnecessarily. Cycle, jog, walk, stroll, amble even – but keep it moving if you can.

It would also help for UK cities to adopt measures seen elsewhere (e.g. New York, Denver) by closing some roads to traffic. This would provide extra public space for people to get their daily exercise. It would provide more space to walk, jog and cycle without over-crowding sidewalks or the narrows paths through parkland.

More important is the lesson we take from this for the longer term. Fourth Street regularly advises local authorities on how to manage their parks with increasingly limited resources. It is dispiriting work. With no statutory protection, public parks have generally been fighting a losing battle to cost-cutting measures. Some local authorities have been forced to sell off their parks, while others have been forced to close. Almost all are at risk of creeping privatisation.

While it is commendable for the National Trust and the National Lottery Heritage Fund to pursue new models for the management and operation of public parks, it is unfortunate that the they have been forced into this position by the systemic, top-down disregard for the importance of parks as a determinant of public health.

Last weekend’s controversy is a timely reminder that parks are the quintessential ‘public good’, in the strictest economic definition of the term. Most urban parks were either gifted or developed for exactly the purpose they are now being used – as breathing space for people who do not enjoy the privilege of their own private garden. Before this crisis too many councils were busily virtue-signalling their commitment to our ‘health and well-being’ while simultaneously gutting their park budgets and turning them into concert venues, fun fairs, and sports grounds.

Today’s crisis shows how parks – and swimming pools, for that matter, but I’ve written about that before – are meant to serve, first and foremost, a public health function. If Government is serious about prioritising our mental and physical well-being, then it should properly fund its parks – for the public good; as a public good.

The maths of managing parks on a shoestring just don’t add up. You can’t run parks for a profit. They must be protected by statute. They are part and parcel of our history and heritage and a vital means of maintaining the public health – especially, but not exclusively in cities.

I don’t blame the public for descending on parks this weekend, although I would urge the picnickers and sunbathers to grin-and-bear these unfortunate short-term restrictions. There are people who genuinely do need to sit for a spell on a park bench or to feel the grass beneath their feet – they shouldn’t have their access denied by my desire to throw a frisbee.

I do, on the other hand, blame successive governments for failing to enact any meaningful protection for our public parks and open spaces. Out of the Covid-19 catastrophe should come explicit recognition for the importance of public parks, with the the statutory protection and investment they deserve.