How could London's treasured green spaces be managed better?

Green spaces are essential to health and well-being, housing and environmental services.
- Dr Meredith Whitten
St James's Park Lake in Westminster 560 747
St James's Park Lake in Westminster CC BY-SA 3.0

Green spaces are a cherished part of urban environments, but is this prized status reflected in how they are governed? Dr Meredith Whitten of the Department of Geography and Environment says that while funding and management of green spaces are important, societies should think more fundamentally about the role these areas play in all aspects of our lives.

London is one of the most expensive and visited cities in the world. A major part of the city’s appeal is its vast ‘green spaces’, defined as parks, forests and natural areas within urban areas, with 47 per cent of London considered to be ‘green’.

In her latest article, Blame it on austerity? Dr Whitten considers whether the governance of London’s green spaces reflects their social and economic value to the city.

Many green spaces are managed and funded by one of the 33 local authority districts which govern services within a defined area.

Between 2010 and 2015, councils’ budgets declined by 27%. As many councils struggle to maintain core services like social care and waste management, pressure has grown on discretionary items such as parks, with some green spaces privatised or falling into disrepair.

Although some have blamed austerity spending cuts for this predicament, Dr Whitten writes that cyclical funding and chronic underfunding of Britain’s green spaces has been an issue for decades. Local authorities’ budgets have also been stretched by London’s growing and ageing population, twin challenges which are expected to intensify in the coming decades.

Dr Whitten says: “Parks and green spaces are a highly visible council service that local resident’s value. But providing green space is not a statutory requirement."

As local authorities face increasing pressure to provide statutory services for changing populations, they are forced to cut their spending on discretionary services, like green space. Adding austerity into the mix has exacerbated what was already a growing problem.”

To meet the funding challenges some local authorities have chosen to hand over management and maintenance of their green spaces to community organisations, often called ‘friends groups’. Dr Whitten says that while some of these local organisations have done a good job of replicating council services, she is sceptical on whether this model is viable as a long-term strategy.

“Friends groups tend to get formed in response to a specific, often controversial issue. For example, there might be a new building being proposed adjacent to the green space, or the council wants to cut down some trees. After the flashpoint is resolved people tend to lose interest or their commitment wanes.

“And such arrangements need continuous council oversight, so local authorities still incur a cost. Volunteers don’t have the accountability that councils have, and they may not be representative of the community’s social, cultural and economic makeup.”

This relates to a bigger challenge around managing green spaces as a city-wide resource. As most of London’s parks are run by local authorities, the city doesn’t have a wider, strategic perspective on how its green spaces co-exist and complement each other.

“When you think about how people use green spaces, they don’t stop when they reach the borough border. Yet green space is managed in this way.”

Dr Whitten suggests thinking about green spaces as a system of interconnected, multifunctional spaces instead of isolated islands managed solely for the local community. For example, green spaces could be viewed as sustainable transportation linkages, acknowledging the reality that many residents plan their walking, running or cycling across London using different green areas, or as an important source of biodiversity, such as bee corridors and a habitat for migratory wildlife.

Parks and forests receive the most attention, but Dr Whitten says other green spaces can be just as important to enhance quality of life for people who live in cities. “Green roof tops and green walls can provide a space for reflection or for biodiversity enhancements, but they aren’t really included in green space planning targets and standards.”

A more integrated view of how green spaces are important is therefore necessary. Dr Whitten says: “Green spaces are essential to health and well-being, housing and environmental services. We need to rethink how green spaces support these core council services.”

“Let’s start to think about London as an interconnected, strategically green city. This kind of reimagining of its green spaces is critical for the future viability of London’s urban green spaces.”

Behind the article

Blame it on austerity? Examining the impetus behind London’s changing green space governance by Dr Meredith Whitten was published in People, Place and Policy in February 2019.