Friends of Parks

Through a new role on the committee of Friends of Central Parks I found myself in attendance of a conference hosted by Friends of Haringey Lordship Recreation ground on the topic of Community Empowerment.

The session was funded through Nesta’s initiative Rethinking Parks, which is supporting 8 projects (this being one) to develop “the most promising and innovative operating models for parks.”

The contextual backdrop to this funding stream being widespread cuts to parks funding by local government (facing cuts by Central Government) and increasing threat of closure, to privatising forces.

Rethinking Parks is about giving time, space and budget for groups to try out new models and feed back learning.

“Projects will involve communities and councils working together to make the most of these vital community assets, including; forming parks foundations, nurturing and networking friends groups and generating new income streams through renewables and links with local businesses.”

So why did Central Parks get an invite?

Friends of Lordship Rec’s successful project Parks Community UK included us in their application which is around them supporting other Friends of Parks groups to become more empowered.

We are the Friends of Lordship Rec and our project mission is to promote and help embed community empowerment in the management of greenspaces throughout the UK.

We propose to do this by working with up to 13 Friends groups, mainly from London, but others from Peterborough and Manchester too. We will be focusing on:

  • Supporting Friends groups across the country to become more empowered and hence more able to protect, help manage and improve their local greenspaces.
  • Facilitate improved cooperation and co-management between Friends groups and parks managers.
  • In each case we will engage with the relevant local authority/managing agency. We aim to develop a website that can capture good practice and other learning materials.”

So what happened on the day?

The day was impeccably facilitated from the off and included walks, workshops, parks bingo, a delicious vegan meal and more.

First and foremost, it was great to be a room of fellow park lovers.

I think Friends of Parks groups get a reputation for being quite tame, conservative.

But the group that turned up totally challenged this stereotype.

There was the radical group from Manchester that had formed due to threat of privatisation, framing their work in the context of the selling off off 50% of community assets across the country in the last year. Who implored how it important it was that we protect these few and diminishing assets, as common spaces in our communities for coming together.

Groups talking being in a perpetual state of fire fighting (largely as the peril of their governing local council), leaving them little to no time to look forward – with participation in this project gratefully carving out this time.

The group that are now fully community managed. That have built their own cob huts.

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Over the course of the day we heard how Lordship Rec had previously existing in a poor state, with a poor reputation: under valued and underused. And how, over the past decade speared headed by the group, they have turned this around, now existing as the pride and joy of the borough, helped by having been awarded the green flag award years in a row.

Structurally, we learnt, that today their group now operate as more of an umbrella organisation, under which a plethora of green and people groups sit. The Friends of group having encouraged and supported the growth of many of these smaller such groups which focus on specific elements of the park and park life including: trees, wildlife, the lake, woodlands, the orchards, arts, bikes and more (my favourite example from the day was a ‘friends of Graham Lee’ a group to commemorate the life of Graham Lee – a local resident – which involved them planting and looking after trees and plants…)

Workshops focused around how to work with internal stakeholders – park users, and external: owners of parks, councils / managers.

Here are some takeaway tips we took from the day:

Park users:
– Know what they want. Respond:
This means robust, ongoing consultation

Governing groups:
– As a group be representative of existing park users and the community you sit within – the best way to help ensure you are responsive, relevant. This means having a representative mix of cultures, ethnicity, ages, genders, interests, body type, brain type, home addresses.
– Be permeable: open to new energies coming into the group, adapting accordingly
– Keep a check on internal relations.

Owners
– Have and maintain a good working relationship
– Aim to arrive at a partnership (with Sherry Arnstein’s ladder in mind)

Other key points:
– Be a case study for successful community involvement – too good for politicians and councils to risk taking away
– Too dear to communities’ hearts for them to allow it
(use the local press to your advantage)

And –
– Have a clear vision, direction of travel.

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