1. Built environment
July 25, 2019

London’s green spaces aren’t reaching their full potential

By Caroline Russell

A Green member of the London Assembly takes a walk straight through what is known as park life.

Green spaces are the heart of any city; from Central Park in New York to Villa Doria Pamphili in Rome. They are at the centre of community activity and associated with better physical and mental health, reduced stress levels and improved overall wellbeing.

London is known as a green city, with nearly half of its land being green space. But with many Londoners living in flats without access to gardens and only 18 per cent of London’s green spaces accessible to the public, what are Londoners missing out on?

There are many benefits to opening up more green spaces to Londoners. There’s increasing evidence that green spaces improve physical health; it is also associated with better mental health; reduced stress levels and improved overall wellbeing. Camden and Islington Council are two boroughs that have recognised these benefits and recently won grants that will be used to maximise the use of parks and green spaces, reimagining them as focal points for improving people’s health.

But personal health is not the only thing that benefits from accessible green space. Green spaces also provide environmental health benefits, from helping to cool cities down during heat waves and cutting flood risk, to protecting the much-needed variety of plant and animal life that we find in London.

Green spaces also play a key-role in ensuring that London has greater community cohesion and less social isolation. In a recent survey by the Association of Public Service Excellence, 76 per cent of respondents felt that green spaces helped to promote community cohesion, and 67 per cent thought green spaces reduced anti-social behaviour.

However, we know that keeping green spaces open and adequately maintained and managed does not come cheap. Over the last decade, local authorities have been under increasing financial strain which has impacted the accessibility of green spaces for Londoners.

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The London Assembly Park Life report looked at different models of financing to help maintain and manage London’s green spaces. At a recent meeting of the assembly’s environment committee last May, we heard about the importance of core funding, and the case for integrating park services into local authority statutory functions to draw in resources rather than overly relying on commercialisation and major events. There are a number of risks associated with commercialisation, such as large parts of parks being closed off to local residents, people being excluded by ticket prices, nuisance from noise, anti-social behaviour, traffic congestion and repair costs.

But finance isn’t the only thing that is preventing the use of green spaces reaching full potential. One issue that was raised during our recent meeting is that London councils are struggling to find skilled, experienced workers for parks and open spaces. This combined with stretched budgets has left local authorities more and more reliant on the support of volunteers and friend groups.

However, in our report Park Life, we noted that London faces particular challenges in supporting people to volunteer. Local communities need to be enabled to play an integral role in keeping London’s green spaces open, safe and attractive for everyone. The Committee called on the Mayor to continue to explore ways of promoting and enhancing Londoners’ participation in local, site-based volunteer groups with the hope that this will help local authorities get the support and help needed to maintain green spaces across London.

We know that green spaces are highly valued by Londoners. We recommend that the mayor, during London National Park City week, looks at how he and his team can further support local authorities in finding financing methods and in encouraging Londoners to volunteer to help preserve and maintain the green spaces in London that we are so lucky to have.

Caroline Russell is chair of the environment committee at the London Assembly and a member of the Green party.

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