Chapter 13: Open space, park and the natural environment (Beverley Paton & Sian Pettman)

Chapter 13: Open space, park and the natural environment (Beverley Paton & Sian Pettman)

SDG Target 11.4: Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage
SDG Target 11.7: By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.

Introduction

Despite current recognition of the importance of parks and open spaces for mental and physical health and well-being, fostering cohesive communities and heritage, as well as helping to meet some of the challenges of climate change, Canterbury’s parks and open spaces need protection and special attention. This is because the combined forces of severe budget cuts plus an ever-increasing need for development, pose threats to both their secure future and continued good maintenance. They are especially vulnerable as councils have no statutory obligation to fund or maintain them.

Central to Canterbury’s parks and open spaces is the green corridor provided by the high water quality and diverse flora of the River Stour, which is globally one of only 200 chalk rivers most of which occur in southern and eastern England. The riverside pathway is now almost continuous from Chartham to Fordwich. The Stour currently requires specific protection and conservation as it is often blighted by litter and fly-tipping, and apart from maintenance for flood prevention by the Environment Agency, there is no specific management plan for the river. Many of Canterbury’s superb parks and open spaces are positioned along this green corridor, including green-flag award winning Westgate Park, Hambrook Marshes, Kingsmead Field, Solly’s Orchard, the Butterfly Garden and Miller’s Field. It is important to note that while Canterbury Cathedral grounds are not included as part of open spaces (because of the need to pay) they are freely to accessible to local residents. Other main open spaces include:

  • Dane John Gardens, St Mary de Castro,
  • Amenity green spaces such as Beverley Meadows, Victoria recreation, Kingbrook Park, Sturry Road Community Park, Thanington Recreation grounds, Spring Lane.
  • Children’s play spaces, e.g. Toddlers’ Cove, Thanington play area, Wincheap playground, Kingsmead Field, Kingsbrook Park, Military Road, St Stephen’s Green.
  • Semi-natural and natural open space, such as Bus Company Island and Old Park.
  • Various allotments
  • Cemeteries, churchyards or burial grounds and civic spaces (hard landscape)

The Present Situation

Several high-profile reports have recently highlighted the incoherency at the heart of public policy. In September 2016 The Heritage Lottery Fund produced the second of two reports on the ‘State of UK Parks’ highlighting the inconsistency between the rising use of parks and the growing deficit in funds to maintain and manage them. The report called for urgent action to halt, ‘the downward trend in the condition of many of our treasured parks and green spaces,’ recommending that new ways of funding and managing parks be sought through collaborative action.

According to a 2016/17 report on the future of public parks by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, council budgets for park maintenance have been cut by as much as 97%. In response, the Parks Charter, launched on 21 June 2018 by 12 national organisations, is a call to action by politicians to prevent the serious decline of the country’s parks and open spaces. The Parks Charter includes a six-point plan of action. The second point is in line with the SDG goal 11.7, stressing the right of every citizen to have access within walking distance (400m) to a good quality public green space. Similarly, Fields in Trust also recommend a minimum standard for outdoor play of 2.4 hectares per 1000 people. They also include ‘a call for a legal duty for all public green space to be managed to a good standard’ and ‘adequate long-term resources for ongoing maintenance, management and improvement.’

Green open spaces are essential for children in the community as they provide space for free imaginative play, plus access to the physiological benefits of outdoor play and an environment in which to educate children about the natural world. This is significant as recent evidence from End Child Poverty (2017) suggests, for example, that Northgate continues to have the highest child poverty rate in the district at 40.6% as compared with the national average of 18.6%. Families who cannot afford to travel on holidays or outings need easy access to free open spaces. The protection of 80% of Kingsmead Field and the addition of its new toddler’s play area in 2017 has improved access to open space and play provision in the Northgate/Kingsmead area. However, the quality of provision across Canterbury varies. There continues to be a lack of provision of amenity green-spaces in the Barton and Wincheap wards and a lack of a green corridor into the city from Canterbury South.

Many open spaces in Canterbury have become blighted by anti-social behaviour, litter, fly-tipping, graffiti and noise. The rise in social problems, such as homelessness and substance abuse, have also resulted in negative effects on our parks and open spaces. The increasing lack of funding for the management and maintenance of parks exacerbates these problems as neglect of open spaces spirals into a rise of more anti-social behaviour.

While there are many excellent aims and actions in CCC’s Open Spaces Strategy, Riverside Strategy and emergent Green Infrastructure Strategy, the Council’s open spaces team (despite the growing workload) has been reduced by more than half in the past two years, which makes the implementation of many of the actions impossible. This will be further complicated as 16,000 new homes in the District are developed during the course of the current Local Plan, requiring the creation of various new parks, play areas and open spaces.

Local actions and Initiatives

In the light of the challenges faced by Canterbury’s parks and open spaces, local residents’ groups have been mobilised to take action for their open spaces. The growing role of friends’ groups in supporting their local parks has been highlighted in The Heritage Lottery’s 2016 report. The report estimates that friends’ groups could be contributing as much as £120 million each year through fundraising and volunteering. Volunteering also has many social benefits, including bringing the community together and combating loneliness amongst older residents. Friends groups are the eyes and ears for the park, communicating problems as they occur. Many of the tangible achievements in Canterbury since 2013 have come about through community engagement. Two successful high-profile public campaigns are:

  1. Save the Chaucer Fields Campaign which sought to protect the green gap between the northern edge of urban Canterbury and the University of Kent (not a public park but allowing permissive access by the public). This campaign has been successful in protecting the area in the short-term. In December 2018 the University of Kent reconsidered its proposal to build a conference hotel on the southern slopes, relocating the idea to the other side of University Road, closer to Turing College.
  2. Save the Kingsmead Field was started in 2012 to protect this green open space from residential development. This campaign concluded in 2016 with a compromise agreement to designate 80% of the field as a Village Green and allow limited residential development on the rear 20% of the field. The campaign group has now become Friends of Kingsmead Field, working with the council through a signed Memorandum of Understanding to continue to enhance the Field. Improved facilities on Kingsmead Field include: a pathway and benches for better accessibility, a new outdoor table tennis, the addition of a toddler’s play area, the planting of new trees, crocuses and daffodils and the creation of a wetland in the river by the Kentish Stour Partnership, with support from the Environment Agency, which will increase biodiversity and support wildlife.

Canterbury City Council has earmarked the Wincheap water meadows along the banks of the River Stour for an extension to the Wincheap Park & Ride. The Council says that with the planned construction of a new off-slip road from the A2, they need to increase capacity of the P & R from 600 to over 800 spaces. A planning application was made in February and resulted in nearly 500 objections. The Council has now published a revised proposal which increases the buffer zone between the carpark and the river from 8m to 16m. However, this would still result in the loss of most of the water meadows and wet woodland, destroying the continuity of the green corridor and this beautiful heritage landscape. It would affect the flood plain and cause great loss of riverside habitat and biodiversity and trees. This proposal flies in the face of the Council’s own environmental policies, including its Open Spaces Strategy, Green Infrastructure Strategy and the designation of this as an Area of High Landscape Value in the Canterbury District Local Plan. A campaign to Save the Wincheap Water Meadows was set up in August 2019 by local people, including representatives of the Canterbury Society, the Wincheap Society, Love Hambrook Marshes and other local organisations. A change.org petition was also started which already has over 600 signatures.

Westgate Gardens, Toddlers’ Cove, Tannery Field and Bingley Island, collectively known as Westgate Parks provide a significant expanse of green space within easy walking distance of the city centre, as well as a green corridor from the city centre to the heart of the Kent countryside. The five-year project funded by a Heritage Lottery Grant has seen significant enhancement to the parks, as well as extensive community involvement including a ‘physic’ herbal garden and lavender labyrinth, the 2014 refurbishment of Toddler’s Cove play area, the planting of a wild flower meadow, the installation of the “Bull” sculpture in Tannery Fields in 2016, the development of a pond on Bingley Island Nature Reserve and community mural paintings on two local underpasses. The project included the appointment of a Parks Officer, who, with the help of the Friends Group, developed a successful range of educational and innovative events in the parks over the five years. Westgate Gardens has achieved Green Flag Status three years running (in 2017, 2018 and 2019). Although this project has now ended, a Parks Community and Development Officer has been appointed by CCC jointly for Westgate Parks and Dane John Gardens which will help to tackle anti-social behaviour in these open spaces and the Friends of Westgate Parks has also been relaunched.

Several smaller open spaces have been supported by community groups, including the Butterfly Garden, adopted by The Canterbury Society, which was re-planted in 2018 providing long seasonal flowering interest for bees and butterflies and Solly’s Orchard, supported by the St Peter’s Residents’ association, where an herbaceous border has been planted.

In the Spring of 2017 the East Kent Parks Forum was formed, creating a network for community groups which support and promote their local parks and green spaces. This forum provides members with the opportunity to exchange information about upcoming events and funding opportunities and to promote best practice and tackle problems faced.

Canterbury has entered the South and South East in Bloom regional campaign four times, working its way up the rankings each time, achieving gold in 2015 and retaining it in 2016. In 2017 Canterbury was awarded Britain in Bloom Gold, the highest standard, in the Small City category at the Royal Horticultural Society Britain in Bloom Awards. Canterbury was selected for its outstanding commitment to environmental responsibility, community participation and gardening achievement. In October 2018 Canterbury in Bloom, in conjunction with the BID, held a successful conference on Growing Canterbury’s Green Heritage, out of which several innovative ideas developed to further the greening of the city.

Open spaces need to be viewed as inter-connected, to create green corridors promoting urban biodiversity and providing safe access for as many people as possible. Best management practices need to be developed through management planning not only for public parks, gardens and amenity spaces but also for less obvious open spaces such as road verges and roundabouts, as well as for the greening of the built environment. New housing developments need to be carefully located to protect green corridors and designed to include areas of natural vegetation for residents to have easy access to green spaces. Furthermore, the management of these open spaces needs to be the responsibility of the local council rather than given over to management companies so that there is the necessary accountability for best practice maintenance. To successfully protect, conserve, enhance and promote our parks and open spaces, in the light of the many constraints currently faced:

  • the users of particular open spaces need to be identified,
  • their specific needs addressed in the way the space is managed, through developing management plans
  • these communities need to be mobilised to take pride in their open spaces and become active partners with local councils
  • this can be achieved through the formation of friends’ groups, to support and ensure best practice maintenance of their open spaces
  • to succeed consideration needs to be given to what is special about the site; its history, biodiversity, social and physical setting and what is it trying to achieve.

Recommendations

  1. Lobby national government to give local authorities a statutory duty to make sure that all parks and public green spaces under their responsibility are protected, managed and well-maintained by ring-fencing funding and strengthening planning policies.
  2. Protect existing green spaces by adopting ‘in perpetuity’ green space covenants, such as those that exist through Fields in Trust.
  3. Strengthen CCCs depleted parks and open spaces team with more personnel, additional Parks Community and Development Officers and a councillor as a Parks and Open Spaces Champion.
  4. Protect existing parks and open spaces while ensuring they are maintained and managed appropriately to improve safety, inclusivity and accessibility for women, children, older persons and persons with disabilities, i.e. in line with SDG target 7.7.
  5. Provide adequate, well-maintained green open spaces and play areas in new and existing developments, which are under CCC management rather than management companies. In cases where East Kent Housing manages areas of public open space on behalf of CCC, it needs to do so in a pro-active way in cooperation with the local community.
  6. Ensure that management plans for open spaces have a positive impact on the environment by minimising energy use and resource consumption in both landscaping and associated buildings, as well as increasing biodiversity and encouraging wildlife.
  7. Counter fly tipping, vandalism and anti-social behaviour through improved litter and waste management plans for our open spaces, particularly along the Stour river green corridor.
  8. Extend Green Flag status /Canterbury In Bloom initiative to further parks, e.g. regaining Green Flag status for Dane John Gardens. (This however needs to be achieved without detracting from the good maintenance of other open spaces).
  9. Mobilise local people to develop a sense of pride in Canterbury’s open spaces by joining existing and forming new friends’ groups and to participate in consultations on green open spaces.
  10. Promote initiatives to green up, plant trees and create greater biodiversity on Canterbury’s roadsides and roundabouts.

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