Ken Worpole came to do a talk this week to staff and students in the Department of Landscape here at the University of Sheffield. Ken stands head and shoulders ahead as a significant figure in the fight for well-used, well-managed and well-designed green and open spaces (quite literally – he is very tall).
Ken took us through the influential national policy documents starting with Park Life which he authored with Liz Greenhalgh for the think tanks Comedia and Demos into the use of urban parks. Interestingly, Ken mentioned other reports he and Liz were involved in on libraries and town centres – public urban arenas which are also still in need of help 20 years on.
He cited some facts and figures – 44% of public sector budgets were spent on open spaces in 1976-77. That had changed to 31% by 1998-9. While I’m not able to find comparable figures for today, the recent HLF report calls on Audit Commission statistics indicating a 20% reduction in parks funding between 2010-11 and 2013-14 alone, and for deprived areas this could be up to 25% by 2016. This is a much more significant reduction than that felt in the 1970s-80s.
Ken put these reductions down to significant shifts in funding from outdoor to indoor leisure, even though the benefits (economic as well as health) are unfounded. Ken was on the Urban Green Spaces Task Force and their report published by the DTLR discussed the ‘two leisure cultures’. The outdoor leisure culture is one that all ages and social groups can enjoy, reach on foot and was estimated (in the early 2000s) as generating £600m for 2.5 million visits. The indoor fitness leisure culture is for mostly 18-45 year olds, car drivers, professional users generating only £400m for 100 million visits. But yet, this is where a significant chunk of public sector investment has been going – to serve only a proportion of the population.
I paraphrase Ken who puts it like this: The commercial drivers to get people indoors and spend money (in cafés, leisure centres, soft play centres, shopping) come at the expense of a more vibrant outdoors where unexpected social encounters can happen and children are literally stronger.
In the Q&A, Ken talked about how the indoor-outdoor environment is going to mark the debate over the next 20-30 years. The supervision and ‘gentle manipulation towards consumerism and being managed to spend time indoors is insidious and needs to be kept in check. Jan Gehl in his work London was shocked at how few older people and children there were in the city. We need to stake our claim and democratic right to be outside and re-introduce it to those who are absent in the public realm by reminding ourselves of the importance of our green and open spaces. We need more Ken Worpoles!!