How COVID-19 is teaching us to appreciate our parks and green spaces
The east London area is marked by almost 200 major parks – and hundreds of smaller parks and open spaces. For many of us, it is almost impossible to imagine this part of the capital without the great amount of green spaces which are currently available. The history of public parks is relatively short, with Victoria Park being one of the first public parks, opening in east London in 1845. Despite this, the possibilities of going for a casual stroll on a sunny day through Haggerston Park, a picnic in Mile End Park, an outdoor gym session at Weaver’s Fields or taking the kids to play outside on the big ship wreck in Leyton Jubilee park has rarely been questioned before.
The past few weeks, social distancing regulations that have been implemented to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus, have had a significant impact on our relationship with parks. Some parks had to (temporarily) close, visitors are not allowed to sit down and are urged to keep their 2 meters distance and, in some parks, are not allowed to cycle or take their dog off the lead. Despite these restrictions, it seems that the use of some parks has been higher than ever before. Experiencing the second hottest April ever recorded, celebrating a few bank holidays and all while only being allowed to go outside once a day, have made parks a valuable community resource.
Research shows that parks have a great influence on protecting and promoting mental and physical health, improving our wellbeing and longevity. During times in which stress and anxiety are increasing, parks play a crucial role in maintaining our society’s wellbeing. Unfortunately, inequality can be seen in the access to green spaces. The Guardian wrote how Londoners living in deprived areas and those from BAME backgrounds share fewer green spaces and have less access to private gardens and public parks. Barking and Dagenham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets being in the top 32 most deprived boroughs in the UK means that the east London community is unfortunately very much affected by this issue.
Joelle Copeland, Victoria Park’s Community Outreach officer, highlighted some of the ways they engage with all members of the local community:
“We normally organise events such as canoeing and fishing in the park for children who may not get an opportunity to try such an activity and best of all our events are free.”
This shows that not only the access to nature is being influenced for residents, but also the access to culture and community events which is crucial for personal development and growth.
In times of tight public finances, park budgets are often not sufficient to maintain them to high standards, making voluntary support and donations crucial for their upkeep. At ELBA, one of our aims is to improve the access and quality of the parks in east London. Through Team Challenges, thousands of business volunteers work on the maintenance and appearance of parks. Parks that used to have a low number of visitors, like Swedenborg gardens, have now become popular spots for locals as anti-social behaviour has declined due to improved appearance and visibility within the park.
The absence of business volunteers during times like this will really be felt, Joelle mentions;
“There are so many projects we rely on our corporate volunteers to do. We have a big planting project coming up and when we have a corporate group it will take a day to complete whereas when it’s just the gardeners it will take days.”
Victoria Park had to increase their number of rangers from max 6 to 14 a day and are also working with 15 to 25 volunteers a day to manage its large crowds Whereas in normal circumstance, there would be more time to focus on the park maintenance, rangers and volunteers are now dedicating more time on making sure that visitors are following the regulations, putting an even higher strain on the maintenance projects like Joelle mentioned.
Differently from Victoria Park, Steve Williams, Leyton Jubilee’s senior park ranger has not seen big changes due to the Coronavirus in Leyton Jubilee Park:
“This is probably because the park is surrounded by many terraced houses that contain private gardens”.
However, Leyton Jubilee Park has seen a change in the way we use parks as more people visit the park to exercise. Steve mentions:
“Parks are crucial to stay active and for our mental health which may play a role in the change of how we make use of them.”
The lack of other public spaces such as gyms and pools has shown people how important parks are for our wellbeing.
How Coronavirus will change our long-term relationship with parks is a crucial question we should already start addressing in a changing climate like this. Possible cuts in funding due to government debts may mean that parks will rely more on business – and community volunteer support, Steve Williams says. These are speculations for now and only time will tell how the relationship between councils and parks will be influenced by COVID-19. Joelle is positive about the future:
“Hopefully, people won’t take green spaces for granted and will recognise how important they are to our wellbeing.”
At ELBA we hope the same and when time is ready, we will do our utmost best to reconnect our corporates with green spaces like we have always done.