Lots of people, including children, walking, scootering, cycling and running along a path through grass and trees in a park.
Lockdown exercising in Grade II registered Brockwell Park, Lambeth (January 2021). © Richard Baker / Alamy Stock Photo
Lockdown exercising in Grade II registered Brockwell Park, Lambeth (January 2021). © Richard Baker / Alamy Stock Photo

Public Parks and Greenspaces Matter

Evaluating the health and wellbeing value of historic public parks and greenspaces.

The impact of the pandemic

Pandemic lockdown measures from March 2020 required people to stay at home; many venues including heritage attractions closed, and gatherings were limited to two people.

During lockdown phases, many relished the freedom to take exercise, and a local park was a great asset. The number of visits surged, and visiting local green spaces proved to be important to many people’s wellbeing.

In 2021, the Office for National Statistics analysed the impact of lockdown on exercise levels and usage of public green spaces. People exercised more during the lockdowns and visits to parks increased in 2020 and 2021. In May 2020, 36% of people responding to Natural England’s annual People and Nature Survey said that they spent more time outside during the pandemic than before, a figure that rose to 46% in July.

Natural England’s 2021 survey also showed that there were more social media conversations about parks and gardens than in the pre-pandemic period and these highlighted the importance of passive outdoor activities like sitting, chatting, picnicking, and reflecting alongside walking and connecting with nature.

TV presenter Claudia Winkleman (Daily Telegraph 21 August 2021) echoed these changes.

I never really go outside, and I never move. I’m on the Tube, or I’m lying down on my bed, or I’m reading out loud for a living. That’s basically it. But in lockdown I discovered the wonder of a park. Me and my family would do this walk and we named all the squirrels and gave them full characteristics. We continue to do it all the time – lockdown gave it to us and now we won’t give it up.

Claudia Winkleman (Daily Telegraph 21 August 2021)

The role of parks and green spaces

There are more than 27,000 public parks and green spaces across the UK.

We know from the National Lottery Fund’s State of Public Parks report that the main park users are:

  • People between the ages of 25 and 34 (70 % use their park at least once a month)
  • Households with children under the age of five (90 % use their park at least once a month)
  • People identifying as Black and Minority Ethnic (of whom 71% use their park at least once a month compared to 56 % of people identifying as White)

An earlier survey by the Heritage Fund revealed that:

  • 95% of visits are enjoyable, peaceful and relaxing
  • 60% of visitors take more physical exercise because they use parks
  • 80% say the park helps make their area more attractive and a better place to live

Evidence on the contribution of parks and green spaces to physical and mental health had already been submitted to the 2016-17 Select Committee ‘Public Parks’ inquiry and reducing stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression , combating loneliness and encouraging community cohesion are recognised in the government’s subsequent 2018 25-Year Environment Plan.

The Plan includes a policy to help improve health and wellbeing by using green spaces including through mental health services. However, progress was dogged by questions about the validity and reliability of data.

The health evidence

Public Health England’s 2020 ‘Improving access to greenspace’ review was a game changer in making the case for parks.

The review showed how the evidence base has grown on who benefits, how and to what extent: it has become irrefutable that access to greenspaces is important for health and wellbeing.

The review called on local authorities to develop greenspace policies to deliver healthy communities, reduce social isolation and address climate change, and to work with health and social care services and local communities.

Cultural heritage and parks

All public parks and greenspaces such as urban commons and cemeteries have a history. They are part of the story of our towns and cities, and vital to life in urban areas. Many date from the 19th and early 20th centuries. This 150-year history of design and development is reflected in the national Register of Parks & Gardens of Special Historic Interest, and in the thousands of features like statues, railings and bandstands that are separately designated on the National Heritage List for England.

Recent additions to the Register include Campbell Park, Milton Keynes (opened 1984) and Alexandra Road Park, Camden (completed 1979).

The idea that parks are good for people is not new: many were designed specifically as places to enjoy, driven by a wish to create ‘lungs of the city’ and address community health and sanitation today. The Victorians sought to refresh the spirit of people through contact with nature, thereby creating long-lasting investments, great social assets and critical green infrastructure. For example Sir Frank Crossley’s aspiration in creating Halifax’s People’s Park (1857) was ‘to arrange art and nature so that they shall be within the walk of every working man in Halifax; that he shall go to take his stroll there after he has done his hard day's toil, and be able to get home without being tired’.

New research findings

In 2021 Historic England commissioned an analysis of the economic, social and environmental values of 72 registered public parks of ‘special historic interest’ in eight cities using the Greenkeeper tool launched in mid-2020.

The demand model – based tool is designed to enable green space managers and investors have a better understanding of the full value, as opposed to cost, of urban greenspace. Using recreational visit numbers and applying a series of valuation methodologies, the tool estimates the benefit to individual visitors (physical health, mental wellbeing), local populations (local value) and global populations (carbon sequestration) and translates this into monetary terms.

The analysis showed that this cohort of nationally important parks generate 37 million visits per year and £856 million in annual benefits, including physical health, mental wellbeing, amenity value and carbon sequestration (the capture and storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide by trees). The mental health benefits alone equate to £543 million per year.

In Birmingham, a City Council report shows that the annual net benefit of all the city’s parks and greenspace is nearly £600 million, and £4.6 billion in health benefits over 25 years. 23% of Birmingham’s parks and green spaces are registered and Greenkeeper estimates that these sites alone account for £168 million or 28% of these annual benefits including over £106 million mental health benefits each year.

Research for the National Trust and the City of Sheffield (2016) showed that approximately ‘60% of the public accounts benefits of public parks in any large city arise from their contribution to physical and mental wellbeing’ and reinforce the positive role of parks for our health, confirming their place as significant capital assets contributing to the many services provided by the natural environment that benefit people, termed ecosystem services.

The challenge is now to tease out the role of, and quantify the benefits of, the heritage and cultural significance of parks and how these attributes help people engage with and use their parks more. We know that the quality of green spaces, (how they are planned, designed and maintained McCormack GR, Rock M, Toohey AM, Hignell D 2010), is as important as having access to them evidenced by huge increases in the number and range of visitors and volunteers flowing from the Lottery investment in parks.

This has been shown in two Heritage Fund reports:

DCMS is now developing a valuation framework for culture and heritage capital, a parallel for natural capital accounting that will include public parks. In step with the Public Health England 2020 recommendations, it would be helpful to have evidence-based case studies highlighting historic public parks and health outcomes, especially for disadvantaged groups. We need to ensure the heritage and cultural significance of these parks is recognised and celebrated alongside their natural qualities.

About the author

Jenifer White

National Landscape Adviser at Historic England

Currently National Landscape Adviser at Historic England, Jenifer is a chartered landscape architect specialising in the conservation of historic parks and gardens.

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