A source of much celebration and pride, Bristol’s public parks are interwoven into the fabric of the city – but it is feared their value may only truly be realised after it is too late.
Whether it be a moment of solace in the sun, a safe space for children to play, a community gathering or an escape from the concrete jungle, green spaces provide a wealth of social, environmental, and physical and mental health benefits.
But the simple notion of free access for all is under threat, as parks feel the force of vicious public sector cuts and campaigners say they are at a crisis point.
Bristol City Council is planning to pull the plug on all of its funding for parks – £4.5m per year – by 2019, proposing that the green spaces become cost neutral by generating an income through charging event organisers for their use.
Those opposed to the plans argue this model is not feasible, as the events will simply go elsewhere. Many have voiced fears that it will devastate green spaces that are not only a great source of pride, but also the most widely used leisure facilities in the city, available to everyone regardless of age, background or income.
To paint a picture of the likely consequences of slashing funding, Sam Thomson, vice chair of Bristol Parks Forum, says we need to hark back to the 1980s, when budgets for green spaces were cut.
“It led to a spiral of crime,” says Thomson. “People stopped wanting to take their children to public places with broken equipment that became dangerous and littered with drug paraphernalia and needles.
“Parks became hot spots of problems that the police had to get involved in. The answer then was to sell the green spaces to be built on.”
The forum has launched a petition calling on the council to rethink its budget proposals and work with members to come up with a sustainable alternative solution.
“Quite a lot of people we talk to simply don’t seem to believe that funding for parks will be cut to zero,” continues Thomson.
“The petition aims to raise visibility of the threat to parks in the city and encourage people to add their voices to prove the value of public parks.”
There is no statutory requirement for councils to provide funding for parks and faced with ever-squeezed budgets for vital public services, green spaces are at the forefront of the firing line.
“It will have a profound impact on the parks and green spaces in the city,” says Thomson, who believes parks are at a crisis point with the budget already cut to the bone in recent years. “90 per cent of residents use parks. If we are looking at what’s going to have an impact on the largest number of people, this is it.”
While voluntary groups across the city raise thousands of pounds to enhance and protect their green spaces, Thomson argues that without a dedicated department with the necessary knowledge to maintain them, this alone will not be enough.
“If there are no parks, it will have a massive impact on physical and mental health, crimes rates, access to wildlife and on communities. They are centres of communities,” she says.
“Children in every area of the city currently have access to free play equipment. The whole idea of public parks and free access to all is under threat.”
Avon Wildlife Trust has also joined the fight, arguing that, for wildlife and Bristol residents, they are more than a ‘top ten’ listing in a city guide.
“Bristol’s parks provide thriving habitats for birds, mammals, insects and plant life – some of which is now in decline nationally,” states the charity.
“And for people of all ages and from all of Bristol’s diverse communities, neighbourhood and city centre parks provide a free and accessible way to experience and benefit from nature.”
Green councillor Martin Fodor is on the Neighbourhoods Scrutiny Commission and is supporting the petition, arguing that at the very least a longer time scale is needed to make the proposals workable.
“Bristol’s parks offer all sorts of benefits to the people of Bristol – ranging from improving our mental and physical well-being, acting as a place to cool cities and combat the impact of climate change, improve air quality, possibly help reduce flood risk, and offer a place for wildlife and improved habitats,” says Fodor.
“They also help foster community spirit, so crowding that out with commercialised spaces and events would damage the volunteering, informal play, and community-building that is so vital.
“I doubt if anyone thinks it possible to make parks cost neutral by 2019 in a way that does anything other than devastate them.”
Bristol City Council was approached for comment.