A report from the University of Leeds published today (18 July) is calling for a national debate on who should pay for the UK’s public parks and green spaces, and whether charitable donations could or should help bridge the funding gap.
The report, Charitable Giving to Parks and Green Spaces, which will be available from the Leeds Parks Fund website, argues that charitable giving has an important but limited role in bridging the funding gap and stimulating greater civic engagement.
The authors also argue that charitable donation initiatives are operating in the context of a long-standing belief that parks are a public service, managed by local authorities and funded through taxation, and that despite high levels of support for the principle of voluntary donations to add value to parks, much lower percentage of park users and business leaders reported that they would donate to parks themselves.
Its findings are based on surveys carried out with 1,434 park users and 141 business leaders who were asked about their attitude towards charitable giving (among other funding options) to parks in Leeds. In addition, 45 business and civic participants took part in focus groups and in-depth interviews.
Dr Anna Barker, from Leeds’ School of Law, led the research. She said:
“Public parks are vital features of our towns and cities that provide numerous benefits for people, communities and the environment.
“But park managers require new and diverse sources of external income if parks are to survive ongoing cuts, a lack of statutory protection, and no cross-funding from other public services that benefit from the contribution parks make to wellbeing, notably health.”
“In this context, many local authorities are beginning to work with charitable partners to establish voluntary donation initiatives to help maintain and improve parks.”
“There needs to be an informed public debate on the funding of parks, including the role of charitable giving and the urgent need for donations if parks are to survive deep cuts. Charitable giving should not be a substitute for local authority funding.”
How Leeds is responding to budget cuts
Given as an example, Leeds has experienced a 50% cut to its parks budget since 2010 and has had to diversify its income base to offset the reduction, generating revenue from cafés, shops and visitor attractions, events, concessions and business sponsorship.
Partnerships with communities through friends groups, corporate volunteers and organisations such as sports clubs and environmental charities have also played a significant role in helping care for public green spaces in the face of the cuts.
Examples of its “civic enterprise” approach include two concerts by Yorkshire-born Ed Sheeran in the city’s best known site, Roundhay Park, next month, set to be attended by up to 150,000, and reframing the city’s biggest plant nursery, the Arium (which provides all the plants for Leeds’ flowerbeds), as an income-generating visitor attraction including a shop, café and children’s playground.
Leeds City Council, along with Leeds Community Foundation and Leeds Parks and Green Spaces Forum, also set up Leeds Parks Fund, a charitable fund for parks that provides businesses and individuals with a platform to support community-led enhancements to parks across the city.
Councillor Mohammed Rafique, the council’s Executive Member for Environment and Active Lifestyles, said:
“The research findings are of great interest to us. As a partner in the Leeds Parks Fund initiative, they will help us maximise the potential of the fund – the first such scheme established in a UK core city – while at the same time acknowledging that a full, rounded Parks and Countryside service does come at a cost that must be supported by core funding.”
Amy Solder, Rethinking Parks Lead, Nesta, added:
“There is a growing interest from the parks sector about the role of public donations including models such as parks foundations and crowdfunding. The report findings will not only help the Leeds Parks Fund but will be of use to any park manager, friends group or local authority interested in the role of charitable giving for parks and green spaces.”
The report formed part of Rethinking Parks: a national programme funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, National Lottery Heritage Fund, and Nesta to support park innovators across the UK.
Several towns and cities are setting up charitable giving initiatives to harness voluntary public donations as part of the Rethinking Parks programme. These include operating a parks foundation model in Bournemouth, Bristol and Bath, Cleveland and Redcar; a Community Foundation-managed fund in Leeds and a crowdfunding platform for Scottish parks and green spaces. Technology such as “tap to give” contactless payments by park visitors is also being trialled, while other projects are exploring other aspects of charitable giving, such as volunteering, corporate social responsibility and community management.
More on fundraising for parks:
£2.75m more funding announced for pocket parks plus programme 18 February 2019
£1m funding available for community groups’ ‘pocket parks’ 7 December 2018
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