Parks & Recreation: Part 3

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In October, I decided to find out exactly what was going on with Southampton’s parks. I needed to know how they were being managed and what exactly the decision process for their care is. After trawling through countless City Council staff pages, being redirected from person to person, and participating in a few lengthy e-mail chains and phone calls, I found my interviewee: Lindsay McCulloch*.

So first of all, could you describe your role?

Well I’m actually the planning ecologist so my primary role is related to the planning process which used to be quite separate but there’s a lot more overlap these days. Partly on the policy front, where we’re trying to get initiatives such as natural capital, biodiversity, net gain – stuff like that integrated into the local plan, but also effectively enacted through parks and greenspaces.

What would be the definition of semi-natural within the city?

Those are habitats that are not as intensively managed as say, central parks where you have shortcut amenity grassland and you have flowerbeds and shrub beds and standard trees. Semi-natural habitats will be areas of woodland, meadow, streams, wetlands; areas that people would be more inclined to look at and say, “Oh that’s natural” or “that’s more like the countryside”.

How is the city trying to engage with people within Southampton’s parks infrastructure?

Well at the moment our ability to engage with the population is limited because of resources. Parks team have suffered very big cuts so we’re really down to a skeleton basis. But we do provide support to friends’ groups, so where a group of local people have a particular interest and set themselves up as a group, we will work with them to manage the sites; they do things like litter picks, they can run education events, guided walks and all that kind of stuff. So, we will support the community, but the days when we were able to just go out and initiate really involved activities ourselves are long gone at the moment.

How much interaction is there currently, then?

Well, we have an education officer who’s based at the Hawthorns. He works with schoolsm – they can either come to the common or he will go to their schools. It is a service they have to pay for. The biggest obstacle we find is that it tends to be the same schools, not a huge number. The school curriculum is very pressured so it’s very difficult to get into the secondary schools because so much of their time is just allocated to delivering the curriculum. University? We do have some contact but to be honest it’s very hard work working with a university. I’ve worked with Ian Williams, Malcolm Hudson, and also a few people over in the biological sciences school as well, but it always seems to rely on us going to them, we don’t seem to get people coming back to us saying “we’d like to do so-and-so, what do you think about it”, “is that right”, “can you support us.”.

The picture painted so far seems to be a sad outlook on the future of parks in this city. Not necessarily as a fault of the city council but just not enough focus from central government giving funds out for what is a very important part of city life, it seems that’s been put to the side and other things brought to the forefront.

I think, in microcosm, it exemplifies the current government’s attitude to the environment; they’re really negative about it. Although, it will be interesting to see what Michael Gove does because he’s made some interesting comments. Generally, parks have been underfunded for a long time, this is not a new situation. A committee of MPs have been looking at this and they’ve just published their report. It’s at odds with a lot of the work that’s being done in relation to other aspects such as air quality and health issues, as those sectors are coming to the conclusion that green infrastructure and parks are absolutely critical to addressing their problems. I’m hoping that we’ve reached the low point and it will dawn on people that parks are absolutely critical to urban life, not just Southampton but urban life generally. If you haven’t got good quality parks people are going to have poor-quality lives because their environment is not going to be suited for them.

I’m currently working with a colleague in public health who’s working on a plan to address childhood obesity. We’re looking at running a little pilot project in one of our deprived areas, which has a really nice semi-natural site as well as the formal green spaces. We’re going to try and work with the schools and persuade them to get involved, as well as a community organisation which has actually received a large grant to do a range of work within their community, one strand of which is environmental work.

So is the focus more on these small steps, or will it all go into the masterplan?

It will have gone in. One of the initiatives which we’ve mentioned in our city centre action plan is something called the Green Grid, which was roughly sketched out, but only applies to the city centre area. The local plan, which is currently on hold at the moment because the planning policy team are otherwise engaged, will cover the whole city. The green grid will be extended to the whole city. At that point we’ve got our existing assets, we’ve got our parks, we’ve got housing and we’ve got trees on the highways (we are responsible for all the highway trees).

How would you like to see all this implemented?

I think we would need an initiative from higher up the organisation that says that they’d really like us to go out and engage with people more actively. We have people who are doing other things, but if we had that initiative which says this is important, and prioritises it over some of the other work, we might be able to bring people back and then do some education and community/public engagement. The most effective way would be to make it a priority – that’s the key.

*You can read the full article here: https://wp.me/p9BcK4-a

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