Parks for Urban Health: Bringing People to Nature and Nature to People

‘There’s an innate health and wellbeing response to looking in to the eyes of a cow.’

On Tuesday morning, I dashed to Kentish Town City Farm to make a donation and claim some of their superb manure for my allotment. Under COVID-19 restrictions, you can’t get past the farm gate without pre-booking (though there is still a huge amount going on, so don’t let that put you off). Increasingly, the farm is bringing its animals past those gates in the opposite direction.  Camden dwellers may have spotted Nora the donkey walking the local streets or even booked a furry friend to pop up at your Zoom Christmas social. So why not take things a step further and invite Shirley the cow to your local park so more people can look in to her big brown eyes?  Or arrange a pop-up petting zoo on your estate? These were just two ideas from participants in the workshops we ran this week to delve deeper in to what’s already happening in Camden and Islington’s parks and green spaces and, more excitingly still, what could happen in future. These workshops are just the latest stage in our Parks for Health commission by the councils, seeking to increase and diversify use of public green spaces to improve health and reduce inequalities.  You can read more about the programme as a whole in Tom Carman’s blog here.

Bringing nature to people as well as people to nature came up a lot in the workshops. That and the power of activity outdoors – surrounded by nature, if not engaging directly with it – to forge connections:  connections with nature itself but also with a place more generally and with each other. All of which are known to be good for the health of individuals and of communities as a whole. We heard, for example, about Octopus Communities’ experience of the award-winning Bloomin’ Gardeners group with Age UK Islington, in  Caledonian (‘Cally’) Park. The initial impetus for this was to bring older people together for a both social and productive activity, but other opportunities to enhance wellbeing emerged. People stopped to admire and observe, chatting to the gardeners even if not necessarily wanting or able to get directly involved. Two older men, rough sleepers as it happens, were unable to stand up for long but were happily seated so that they could direct the garden hose and water the plants. A pottery group made ceramic ornaments to decorate the garden.  All this came from some lateral thinking and a willingness to be responsive to needs and interests as they became apparent.

‘Places which can spark a conversation.’

Cally Park is one of many public green spaces which have a rich heritage, and heritage too is a great connector. Listening to stories from North London Cares about intergenerational learning sparked ideas among our participants for Covid-safe health and heritage walks with older residents sharing their knowledge of local history and the achievements of local citizens. This, in turn, led to a conversation about cemeteries which, sadly, many are encountering for the first time as a result of the pandemic. Cemeteries are themselves community assets, green spaces full of wildlife, enjoyed by strollers and dogwalkers as evocative and tranquil places to visit – but many now are fearful of them or just don’t realise they are open to the public. Could Camden and Islington’s cemeteries become more central to Parks for Health thinking?

In similar vein, we heard a lot about the green spaces on estates which are under-utilised by residents, sometimes because a key is required to access them and people are simply unaware that this is the case.  Often they can be used by the wider community as well, although more needs to be done to make that known and to counter people’s prejudices or fears about council estates. We heard too about estate residents unaware of a park round the corner from where they live. More physical signposts to parks and available green spaces could be a quick win, although participants were clear that relationships between residents, community groups or activity organisers and the council all need strengthening if more people are to be confident about using these spaces, even though they already belong to us all.

In sum, these workshops and the survey we have been running, demonstrated how much is going on already in parks which is good for both physical and mental health in a myriad of ways.  Moreover, contributions from a range of participants offered an important challenge regarding the very concept of a ‘park’. They suggested that any publicly accessible space associated with nature, be it a green verge planted for biodiversity, a city farm, a cemetery or an estate recreation area all serve a similar purpose to a formally designated park – and so should be embraced by Parks for Health across the boroughs.

In the coming year, Shared Assets will be supporting voluntary and community organisations to develop these and other ideas, brokering new partnerships and facilitating learning sessions.  In January, we will be reviewing the workshop outputs in detail and analysing the responses to our survey so we have a more comprehensive picture of what’s going on, which spaces are used, what’s good about them, what can be improved, and what people would like to do in future. The plan is then to set up some ‘clusters’ which may be based on activity themes, user groups or, potentially, localities (depending on what we find). We’ll be looking for some locally based leads for each of the clusters, once identified, to act as a liaison between Shared Assets and local groups and to support us in future workshops: do get in touch if you would like to find out more about this or any other aspect of the programme.

Parks for Health is Camden and Islington’s Future Parks Accelerator programme, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This blog was originally published on the Shared Assets website in December 2020 and shares findings from workshops we ran to understand current and potential activity in parks and green spaces to improve health and bring people together.