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Britain is losing its parks – when and where it needs them most

The number of people living further than a ten-minute walk from a public park will rise by 5 per cent over the next five years, hitting deprived areas hardest.

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“There is nowhere for my children to go where I can see them.”

A young mother is leaning over the concrete walkway of a low-rise housing estate in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, watching her two primary school-age children playing in the carpark below.

They cycle around the cars pulling in and driving out, struggling to keep their distance from the other children of families who live on and around the estate trying to do the same.

The carpark is smaller and narrower than a tennis court. There are only six spaces. Beside the children playing in the carpark, and overlooked by their parents watching from windows and walkways, is a garden of similar size. It boasts a sandpit, rows of wooden vegetable planters, bushes and climbing plants of colourful flowers and a stretch of grass to play on.

Weeds rise out of the planters, which families on the estate without gardens usually use to grow tomatoes and summer greens, their flat numbers spray-painted onto the timber. Another garden double the size usually plays host to games and barbecues on the other side of the estate. It also sits empty.

Unable to play in the nearest park without the supervision of their parents – who are either working from home, caring for younger children or both – this estate’s children are confined to the hot, dusty concrete of a tiny carpark.

The mother I speak to has tried calling her housing association, which padlocked the gardens, to ask when they will open. “I hope they open them soon,” she says. All that’s changed so far in two months is the locks.

The gardens have been closed since the beginning of lockdown, for the sake of social distancing measures. But with Tower Hamlets Council opening surrounding parks, and an ensuing loosening of lockdown rules, their remaining closure feels draconian and frustrating.

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Like these families, one in eight British households has no access to a private or shared garden during the coronavirus lockdown, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysis of Ordnance Survey map data.

This proportion rises to more than one in five in London, which has the highest percentage of gardenless households out of every region in Great Britain (equivalent figures for Northern Ireland aren’t available).

As in Tower Hamlets, which has a 69 per cent ethnic minority population, the percentage of homes without a garden are higher among ethnic minority groups. Black people in England are nearly four times as likely as white people to have no outdoor space at home, for example.

Despite being least likely to have access to a private garden, however, Londoners are most likely to have a park nearby, with Ordnance Survey data showing 44 per cent of Londoners live within a five-minute walk of a park: the highest in Great Britain.

Nevertheless, with the coronavirus lockdown exposing more than ever the importance of easy and close access to green space, it is also exposing its unequal distribution.

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London, Yorkshire and the North-east fall well below the minimum standard of green space required for health and wellbeing (this is outlined in the “Guidance for Outdoor Sport and Play” – a measure used by 75 per cent of local authorities).

Four nations and regions of Britain (East Anglia, Scotland, the South-east and Wales) are currently above this benchmark, while a further two (the South-west and West Midlands) are at the minimum standard. The rest are below.

While Scotland provides 43.48sqm per person, Londoners have less than half this figure at 18.96sqm per person, and in Yorkshire and the Humber the figure is 27.11sqm.

Across Britain, nearly 2.7 million people do not have a publicly accessible local park or green space within a ten-minute walk of where they live, according to new figures released today by the Fields in Trust charity, which is in its second year of publishing a “Green Space Index” based on Ordnance Survey and other data.

This is at a time when parks and other public green spaces have been central to people’s social and physical freedom during lockdown.

Unequal provision of green space in Great Britain

Zoom in and hover over each borough to see square metres of green space per person, hectares of green space, and population not within a five and ten minute walk of green space:​

 

Map by Michael Goodier

“During this pandemic, we’ve seen the profile of parks and green spaces rise up the political agenda to such a significant degree because there has been a recognition of what a lifeline they are,” says Helen Griffiths, chief executive of Fields in Trust.

“There’s an understanding that these are where those places of interconnection are, where we see our friends, albeit at a social distance, and also what the real value to our physical and mental health and wellbeing they bring.”

The provision of green spaces in towns is closely linked to their inhabitants’ health outcomes, finds research into Covid-19’s impact on English towns, published this month by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge University.

Using data from the the ONS, Public Health England and NHS Digital, this research also analyses how “access to green space, which is crucial to the mental and physical health of a population, especially during lockdown, is very unevenly distributed”.

The report finds: “There is an overriding need for policies to address the large and widening gaps in the health and economic fortunes of many towns, and these should be integral to the ‘levelling up’ and economic recovery agendas.”

The Co-op’s Community Wellbeing Index finds a direct correlation between proximity to green space and a community’s wider wellbeing score, which factors in a sense of equality, relationships with neighbours and local economy.

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Britain’s parks and green spaces are at “significant risk of loss to development”, according to the Fields in Trust research, which shows the number of people living further than a ten-minute walk from a public park rising by 5 per cent over the next five years.

The trend over recent years of cash-strapped local authorities selling off assets like green spaces to commercial and residential development looks “set to continue”, warns Griffiths. More than 12,000 public spaces have been sold off by councils since 2014/15.

This loss of parks and green spaces is likely to “disproportionately impact disadvantaged and underrepresented communities”, according to Fields in Trust analysis.

“It feels incredibly timely to be looking at this right now through the lens of equitable provision of those spaces,” says Griffiths. “We’ve seen real outrage at the prospect of reducing access to these spaces – in instances of parks being closed for various reasons during the pandemic, we’ve seen communities react very strongly.”

Indeed, when Tower Hamlets Council and local police decided to close the biggest park in the borough, Victoria Park, “until further notice” two days after lockdown, community petitions and local reporting pressured it to reopen less than three weeks later.

Back on the estate, the two boys in the carpark have gathered handfuls of gravel and stones from the side of the carpark to take back to their flat. “They’ll put it back later,” smiles their mother. “They just wanted to make their own garden up here.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.