The critical role of volunteers within parks

I’m trying to convince myself that the harshest part of the winter is coming to an end and that I no longer have an excuse not to exercise outside. Plus I’m training for a marathon, so I’d better start running.

That usually means that I start to see a lot more of my local parks. I’m hugely lucky to have Victoria Park (recently voted the nation’s favourite park) on my doorstep. A few years back it received a £5m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which made a huge difference. But several years later, as much as I still love the place, a lot of the fantastic replanting that was done has since been grassed over to save costs. This story, and much worse, is seen again and again around the country, as was highlighted in recent press coverage.

A national network of Friends Groups

Before NCVO I worked in the world of parks and it was a fantastic area to be in. We worked closely with local authorities and while we understood the multiple competing demands they faced, it was nonetheless hugely frustrating to see parks budgets successively cut.

This was made worse by their non-statutory status – like libraries and museums, local authorities are not mandated to spend a set amount. Such services seem to be at the forefront of the challenge of how to deliver much-cherished services on ever decreasing resources. Some of this was examined in Nesta’s useful report Rethinking Parks, and more widely in the public sector in this week’s report, Enabling Social Action, from DCMS and NEF.

It feels like business as usual is not an option, and it’s going to require strong and creative leadership within councils across the country. But we also need to draw on another resource, which has long provided a critical role in the delivery of our parks: volunteers.

When I worked at GreenSpace, much of my time was spent supporting a network of parks ‘Friends Groups’ (have a look at the Friends of Victoria Park). We estimated there to be in the region of 5,000 of these across the UK, which could have up to 20 or so volunteers in each. They undertook a huge range of activities, from practical conservation work to organising community events or feeding in to strategic plans for the park.

The value of a partnership

That so many people get involved in groups like this reminds us that people cherish their public spaces. Such enthusiasm from local communities all-round the country is an enormous resource to draw upon, and our parks will be better for it. But we can’t risk exploiting this goodwill.

The best Friends Groups I saw often had a great deal of autonomy, but were also well supported by the local authority and the parks staff. Volunteer management and its investment, while often informal and peer-to-peer in this instance, is a crucial part of making this work.

The existence of Friends Groups also demonstrates the huge value that volunteers can bring to a service like public parks. They enable local authorities to do more and connect the park to the community in a way they could not do on their own. This was recognised by the Heritage Lottery Fund in their public parks funding programme, when they insisted that having a Friends Group was a central requirement of receiving funding for the park’s restoration.

There was a powerful assumption that services like this were better for involving volunteers and that volunteers were part of the resource mix, alongside the local authority. Friends Groups needed the parks department, and the local authority could not do it without the community; essentially, one could not substitute the other.

Volunteering at the forefront of the debate

The recent article on parks uses the language of a ‘tipping point’, while many other public services have been described as being in crisis. It’s all too easy to be immunised against such terms, but services like parks do need to think through new models of delivery.

Volunteering is going to continue to be at the forefront of the debate about how best to deliver effective, quality and sustainable parks services. But to position this as a discussion of state funding versus volunteer-involvement, in an either-or debate, seems to me to be the wrong starting point. It’s got to be about collaboration, the state and volunteers working together to be part of the solution, and local authorities will need to build in, resource and support good volunteering structures.

Assuming I manage to persuade myself to go on a run in Victoria Park at the weekend, I will do so in a beautiful park. Yes, it has fewer rose beds than it did, but it’s still a wonderful place and I think a huge part of that is because the local authority and volunteers are doing their best to work together to provide something for the community, rather than seeing one as replacing the other.


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Avatar photo Nick Ockenden is an NCVO research associate and former head of the research team. As part of this role he led the work of the Institute for Volunteering Research, where he worked from 2005.

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