Guidance for UK local authorities, produced with Friends of the Earth

Hackney Council boosts access to green spaces for less wealthy residents

Group of seven older people walking along a path in a green park using walking sticks.

How is this tackling the climate crisis?

In urban areas nature-rich green spaces help to draw down carbon pollution from the atmosphere as well as contributing to people’s wellbeing. Yet in many areas, green space is being lost and access to green space varies considerably.

Access to nature is also an issue of racial justice. Friends of the Earth research found that people of Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background are twice as likely as white people to live in areas of England that are most deprived of green space.

In Hackney, about three quarters of residents do not have access to a private garden – making access to public green spaces even more important. Hackney Council is now building on efforts over more than a decade to make green spaces available to everyone, regardless of background, particularly the many Hackney residents who live in rented accommodation and on estates. Hackney’s 283 hectares of green spaces includes 58 parks – of which 27 are Green Flag awarded (an accreditation that recognises well-managed green spaces) – and provides roughly 15m2 of green space per resident.

However, with some neighbourhoods still deprived of green space access the council recognised that there’s still work to do.

From the introduction of street trees, parklets and green corridors to major park restoration projects or the creation of entirely new open spaces, access to nature is now a central consideration in the council’s Roadmap to Net Zero, and also the subject of a new strategy.

The council’s Parks and Green Spaces Strategy 2021-2031 was adopted in May 2021, following a community consultation with focus groups and over 50 meetings.  Based on what residents told the council, it sets out how Hackney will continue to improve its parks and green spaces.  over the coming decade. Its 30 commitments include:

  • Increasing biodiversity.
  • Appointing a Volunteering Officer to oversee a comprehensive volunteering programme across Hackney’s green spaces.
  • Exploring the creation of a non-profit organisation, Hackney Parks and Green Spaces Foundation, to help raise more funds.
  • Developing an apprenticeship and work experience programme linked to green space conservation, accessible to people with disabilities and special educational needs.
  • Making it easier for community and cultural events to be hosted in parks.
  • Introducing three new food growing projects on housing estates every year.

The council has also made a separate commitment to plant over 5,000 new street trees between 2018 and the end of 2022, and over 30,000 new trees and saplings in Hackney’s parks and open spaces. Alongside this, the council is starting to trial the use of electric tools and machinery to lower the carbon emissions of managing its green spaces and has committed to annual reports to update residents on progress towards its commitments.

Improving access to existing green space

Although there is a high number of parks in the borough, many date from the Victorian era and need improvements.  Some are fenced off, and these green spaces are not well connected to the surrounding environment. The council wants to open up these older parks and make them more inviting.

Restoring green spaces for people and nature

Currently, Shoreditch, Dalston and Haggerston are the areas of Hackney that offer least access to green space, with far fewer private gardens than elsewhere in the borough. Three major projects are already underway:

  • The £2m restoration of Shoreditch Park between spring 2022 and winter 2022. Over 1,900 people took part in public consultations on the design of the park, which will feature a new playground, welfare facilities, cycle storage and multi-faith facilities. The council predicts a significant net gain in biodiversity with rain gardens, wildflower meadows and 72 new trees to be planted.
  • Abney Park redevelopment between October 2021 and spring 2023. Once completed, the park will feature a community hub, café and renovated chapel. The council is partnering with the charity Possible to install a ground-source heat pump to sustainably heat Abney Park’s buildings. This experiment will be accompanied by educational outreach to inform residents about how heat pumps work. The park also has unique historic value, as it is the resting place of many local anti-slavery campaigners – the redevelopment therefore combines greening with heritage conservation.
  • Fairchild’s Garden is a dark and disused park, surrounded by a large wall and with a narrow gate. This park will be transformed in 2022, integrating street art, spaces for socialising and new plants to celebrate Thomas Fairchild, the famous horticulturalist after whom the garden was named.

Using planning policies to create new green space

Hackney Council is using its Local Plan (policies LP46 through to LP52) to make sure developers are protecting and enhancing green spaces. For example, all developments with roofing over 100m2 are required to be ‘living roofs’, and these are encouraged on smaller developments too. Another policy requires proposals for ten or more residential units to maximise on-site provision of open communal space – 14m2 per person.

Hackney’s Child-Friendly Places Supplementary Planning Document sits alongside the Local Plan. It defines a ‘child-friendly’ urban built environment as one that includes opportunities for children and young people to access nature in safe and unpolluted urban spaces, a definition in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This document demonstrates Hackney’s joined up approach to green space linking benefits for nature and people.

In early 2022, Hackney Council consulted on its draft Green Infrastructure Strategy, which will be informed by and build upon policies in the Local Plan as well as other council strategies, such as the Transport Strategy.

Creating parklets

In 2018, the council launched the Community Parklet Scheme. A parklet reclaims space used for parking vehicles on residential streets and replaces it with seating and planted beds – or other uses suggested by residents. Parklets give residents a place to meet, play and socialise and create a calmer, greener street for all. Ten were installed by the end of 2021.

Hackney has also trialled several low-traffic neighbourhoods on a temporary basis with greening measures such as trees and pollinator friendly planting planned if they are made permanent.. The council has consulted residents about closing roads that bisect parks and turning them into permanent green spaces.

10 x greener streets

In 2018, Friends of the Earth partnered with Hackney Council and the residents of Daubeney Road for the pilot 10xGreener project. The UK’s very first ‘postcode gardener’ spent 350 hours organising and advising residents on how to transform their road into a mini green haven.

What impact has it had?

Hackney’s focus on improving green spaces has a series of success stories and has been well received by residents. 96% of people surveyed by the council said they liked or loved Hackney’s parks and green spaces – this is a popular policy area in which the council has a positive reputation.

Parks restored

In 2011, the authority invested £8.9m in the restoration of Clissold Park which is now well used and valued by local people.

In 2019, Daubeney Fields play area reopened after major improvements. The once underused park saw an increase in visits from 27,000 between July and December 2018 to 43,000 for the same period in 2019.

In 2021, Springfield Park opened after a restoration costing more than £3m. Across Springfield Park and Daubeney Fields 101 Japanese cherry trees were planted, part of an overall gift of 6,500 trees donated to the UK by Japan.

Wider benefits of greening outside of parks

As a result of the 10x Greener project, there is a greener route for pedestrians and cyclists between Daubeney Fields and Hackney Marshes. There were social benefits too as people interacted with their neighbours – especially families and children, because the local primary school was strongly involved.

What made it work?

Recognising the co-benefits:

Social benefits – Having regular, easy access to green spaces is linked to improved mental wellbeing, reduced stress, and better community cohesion. Hackney residents said access to nature was really important to their physical and mental health, something that is now recognised by Hackney’s strategy.

Climate adaptation – Green spaces make neighbourhoods more resilient to climate change by helping to reduce extreme heat and absorbing run off water to lower flood risk.

Working with communities – This is at the heart of the Parks and Green Spaces Strategy, which was written with input from the Hackney Youth Parliament. To produce the strategy, over 50 stakeholder meetings were held including with community organisations, public health experts, older, young and disabled people, conservationists, planners, housing owners, NHS employees, and park users’ groups.

Listening to communities, ensuring they are invested in the actions in the strategy and have a sense of ownership over their local green spaces is crucial. They are the ones who use parks most and know them best. Two examples of engaged community groups are:

  • The Tree Musketeers – a group of volunteers who plant and care for trees in Hackney, and who have run their own tree nursery since 2000. The Musketeers work closely with the council – they were involved in the cherry tree planting in Springfield Park and Daubeney Fields Park.
  • Park trusts and users’ groups, which exist for individual parks across the borough. The Kynaston Gardens User Group, for example, fundraised to regenerate the park, also reaching out to the council. Together, they brought the park back to life.

A smart approach to bidding – Successful funding bids require significant commitment of staff time to secure and a commitment to deliver if the funding is secured. Hackney ensures that funding bids align with its wider goals and what the Parks Development team want to achieve as a service. For instance, at Abney Park a development board of stakeholders met for over a year to agree a vision before applying for funding. Putting the vision before the funding makes Hackney’s bids more effective.

What resources were needed?

Since 2010, Hackney has invested £25m in parks and green spaces, with a further £8m to be invested up to 2023.

Typically, major park restoration projects in the borough are part-funded by a grant from an external source, with a match funding contribution from the council itself. The varied funding sources drawn on by the council include the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Urban Parks Programme, the London Marathon Charitable Trust, the Veolia Environmental Trust, Nesta, National Grid, and the Historic Houses Foundation.

The council’s Parks Development Team has recently grown from three to five staff. Funding from the National Lottery has supported two temporary site manager posts for the Springfield Park and Abney Park redevelopments. The parks team has worked closely with the council’s public health team, because green spaces contribute to wider council priorities and can fulfil other agendas.

Lessons learned

The coronavirus pandemic has seen park usage rise significantly, evidencing the vital role parks play for people across the country. In some cases, there has been a strain on popular green spaces – further evidence that green space must be prioritised and protected and proving the need for extra green space provision.

Councils must take care to avoid ‘green gentrification’ – unintended demographic changes that can occur when improvements to green space make a neighbourhood more desirable to live in, inflating property prices and driving away original residents. Working in collaboration with residents and heeding their concerns can help remedy this.

Thriving nature

Improving parks for people should include helping nature to thrive. Hackney has made a start by creating areas of longer grass and dead wood in parks to recreate natural habitats. Hackney’s Local Nature Recovery Plan will support the parks team’s ambition to do more on biodiversity.

Look beyond parks

Hackney isn’t only focusing its greening efforts on parks. Creative interventions like parklets, green roofs and street-level planters blend nature with the urban environment in residential areas. For example, the council has committed to planting 5,000 new trees on streets by 2022. Residents can experience greenery on their doorstep, not just in conventional spaces such as parks.

Making the funding work

There is a compelling financial case for preserving green spaces and increasing access. In London alone, better physical health tied to green spaces could save £580m a year, with a further £370m saved by contributing to better mental health.

Unlike Hackney, many councils have felt forced to cut their parks and green spaces teams, but it is the retainment of a dedicated team that has enabled Hackney to draw in the resources needed to scale-up its work. For local authorities without a special team, volunteers are a useful way of multiplying human resources with huge payback.

Useful information

To find out more, contact Sam Parry – Hackney’s annual report for 2020/21 on parks and green spaces can be read here.

Hackney’s Park and Green Spaces Strategy is available to read here.

Friends of the Earth’s Green Space Gap Report 2020 can be found here.

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