University among partners for new multi-million pound parks fund

The University is to work with partners across Plymouth on a new multi-million pound initiative to secure the future of the city’s parks and green spaces.

Plymouth was one of only eight places across the UK selected by the National Trust and The National Lottery Heritage Fund to take part in its ground-breaking Future Parks programme.

In the first project of its kind in the UK, Future Parks is designed to help councils find sustainable ways to manage and fund parks and open spaces across entire towns and cities. 

The University’s applied social research unit, SERIO, will be evaluating the project in the city, while academics and students in the School of Art, Design and Architecture will work directly on digital and data design elements.

Dr Katharine Willis, an Associate Professor and expert on smart cities and how people perceive and interact with their spatial environment, is leading the digital work, in partnership with social enterprises The Data Place and the Real Ideas Organisation.

“This digital piece is unique to the Plymouth bid,” Dr Willis says, “and we’re excited to be working collaboratively to develop innovative ways to engage with nature and parks in the city, using digital technologies. We share the City Council’s ambition to revolutionise the way we collectively care for, use and value our parks and urban greenspaces.”
Postgraduate students from a new master’s degree – the MA Smart Urban Futures – launching in September, will be at the heart of the project, helping to run digital design workshops and events in Central Park with The Data Place. They will work with sensors and Augmented Reality to create new ways for people to engage with the park, as well as training rangers to use the technology as well. And as the project develops, there will be opportunities created for students on other degrees to become involved.

Eight urban areas – Birmingham, Bournemouth (with Christchurch and Poole), Bristol, Cambridgeshire, Edinburgh, Islington & Camden, Nottingham and Plymouth were selected from 81 applicants, and will receive a share of more than £6 million of National Lottery and government funding, and £5 million worth of knowledge and expertise from the National Trust. Over the next two years they will work together to develop tools, approaches, skills and finance to create their new way of managing green space as well as sharing their experience with other councils.

Dr Pamela Varley, Senior Research Manager at SERIO, said: 

“SERIO is really pleased to be the evaluation partner for this particular project as it aligns so well with our University priorities around public engagement, and builds on an existing strong relationship with Plymouth City Council. Our research will consider whole systems change and novel approaches to engaging people with green space. The evaluation will allow us to work up what best practice looks like, something which will inform the wider national evaluation, and be applicable for others facing challenges in their approach to green space management.”

It is understood that Plymouth’s bid was successful because the Future Parks team recognised the strength of the city’s track record in working with social enterprises, the ambition to use new approaches to develop workable financial models to support parks management and the strength of the existing community involvement in the city’s parks and green spaces. 

Councillor Sue Dann, Cabinet member for Street Scene and the Environment, said: 

“We love our parks as much as you do and we want to make sure that generation after generation get to experience their first taste of nature and adventure in the same way that their parents and their grandparents did. The support that we will get from this project will allow us to move to a new way of managing our parks and open spaces so that as budgets get tighter, we can continue to ensure that the green lung of our city continues to thrive and future proof them for the next generation.”

The launch of the Future Parks Accelerator comes after a report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies in May showed that councils, under increasing financial pressure, are spending less on services, with leisure services such as parks and green spaces falling down the priority list. This comes despite increased numbers of people using open green spaces and more areas being created as part of housing developments, according to the State of UK Parks report from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and the government’s own data.

“The hope at the end of this is that we have more people engaging with parks in new and creative ways,” adds Dr Willis. “And being able to evidence that through the work of SERIO will enable us to capture the legacy of the project and share it with others.”