Managing or running a park or green space

Parks and green spaces are often some of the most valued places in local areas, and can be many people’s main or only experience of the natural world. They tend to be owned and run by local authorities, many of whom are under pressure to make savings in parks budgets.

Increasingly, local authorities are working with community organisations to see if new models of managing these spaces can be developed, creating both efficiencies and added value services and activities as a result.

Defining parks and green spaces

Parks and green spaces can be defined as any space that is not primarily buildings, that is (mainly) undeveloped and accessible to the public.

For many local authorities the priority is finding new models for the management of their public parks, but there will be much in this guide that is relevant to other spaces too.

So we are talking about urban parks, country parks, playing fields, woodlands, green spaces between buildings, food growing areas, footpaths and orchards, as well as towpaths, beaches and land on estates. Therefore, we are using ‘parks’ as shorthand for what could more accurately be termed ‘environmental assets’.

The current landscape

One result of the current pressures on local authority budgets is that parks budgets are being reduced across much of the country. Parks budgets are not ring-fenced within local authorities, and as a result are at risk of reduction more than protected service areas. But while there are real challenges in this context, there are also opportunities.

Local authorities are increasingly aware of the contributions that parks and green spaces make to people’s physical and mental health, and a range of ‘ecosystem services’ including climate change mitigation, biodiversity and flood prevention. Parks provide valuable green infrastructure that goes beyond their role as public amenity spaces. Council officers and members are eager to retain this value and to see parks and green spaces improve.

There is also a growing interest from many communities to take more responsibility for these spaces too. In practice this often means the ‘friends of’ group or larger not-for profit conservation organisations, but there are a growing number of innovative and entrepreneurial social and community enterprises interested in taking advantage of these opportunities as well.

This shift in responsibility is a complex process. The pressure on officers and members to make savings and realise financial value by selling assets can make this process harder to undertake. Tackling many of these challenges will require a change of mind set; looking at these spaces as assets rather than simply budget lines.

State of Public Parks 2014

This report found that 86% of parks managers had seen their budgets cut, and that 45% of local authorities were considering selling off or transferring the management of some of their parks. The report highlighted that many of the investments made in parks over the past 10-15 years were at risk.

Key things for communities to consider when transferring parks or green spaces

What are your motivations

Is taking on the management of parks and green spaces something you or your group actually wants to do? Do you want to create jobs and livelihoods for yourselves or others, or protect a well-loved space?

Often people join friends groups to protect a local amenity or scrutinise the local authority. Many people may not be interested in taking on management responsibilities – and that is ok, and should be expected.

Think creatively

If these new models are to be successful they will need different ways of working, of generating income, and of making decisions about management.

Think about capacity and diversity

Who are you? Are you a conservation focused trust or a local friends group?

Think about accountability

Who are you accountable to? Do you need a wide, democratic membership in your organisation, or are you focused on making quick enterprising decisions and communicating them clearly? What do people do if they disagree with what you are doing? How do you decide if they are right?

Be prepared to make your case

What will be different under your new management than under the local authority’s management? How will you work? What impact do you hope to have? Be crystal clear about your objectives for the site. Be sensitive to terms like ‘development’. Often people assume that this will be negative, so ensure that you talk about ‘new facilities’, ‘upgrades’ and ‘retention of character’.

Read our guide on Community ownership and management of parks and green spaces