March usually signals the start of the grass cutting season, when warm soil and air temperatures initiates the first real flush of growth of the year, enticing many of us to get our lawn mowers out of the shed and start the job of mowing our lawns.
This is coupled with a flicker of colour in the garden - particularly this year when the weather in February was exceptional and had brought about an early flush of flowering cherry trees, winter jasmine, forsythia, camelia, viburnum and heather, bringing a rich vision in our gardens.
I particularly like this time of the year, seeing all the deciduous trees and hedges coming into leaf during the next couple of months. For me it’s the time of the year when our gardens, parks and open spaces come to life and remind us of the wonder of nature.
I firmly believe a section of society take for granted these parks and public open spaces, believing they will be here forever. It does not bear thinking about, how our lives would be without this wonderful tapestry of landscape, trees and urban sprawl of public open spaces.
It is one of the reasons I became a Greenflag judge and each year along with another four hundred plus judges, we annually inspect the quality and management of these wonderful facilities.
The Green Flag Award® scheme recognises and rewards well managed parks and green spaces, setting the benchmark standard for the management of recreational outdoor spaces across the United Kingdom and around the world.
The aim of the scheme, that is now in its 20th year, is to ensure that everybody has access to quality green and other open spaces, irrespective of where they live. Its purpose is to ensure that these spaces are appropriately managed and meet the needs of the communities that they serve.
Winning a Green Flag Award® brings with it a wealth of benefits, from the status of being affiliated with a prestigious awards programme through to tangible benefits such as boosting tourism and opening up revenue opportunities.
Each year, winners receive a Green Flag or Green Flag Community Award Flag. Those with Green Heritage Site Accreditation also receive a plaque to promote the status.
As the international standard for parks and green spaces, holding a Green Flag Award® brings with it a vast amount of prestige. It is also an excellent example of civic achievement and provides communities with a great sense of civic pride.
Winning a Green Flag Award® visibly demonstrates to the local community that a clear improvement has been made to a site.
Improving facilities at a park/green space and engaging more with the local community can have a knock-on effect to the regeneration of an area.
Upgrading a site to achieve Green Flag status can, for example, bring about improvements to health and education, reduce crime and improve the general cleanliness of an area, whilst at the same time providing a boost to its profile.
Research shows that people will make special trips to award-winning sites. What's more, by holding popular events at your site, you will guarantee yourself repeat visits.
A recent report in Denmark revealed the benefits of having access to these public open spaces.
Children who grow up surrounded by green space are less likely to develop a mental health conditions in adulthood, according to a new study. Danish researchers found children who grew up with greener surroundings were up to 55 percent less likely to develop a mental disorder later in life. The number of people who live in cities is increasing and the World Health Organisation estimates more than 450 million people suffer with a mental disorder. The new study from Aarhus University in Denmark calls on city planners to design greener and healthier cities in the future to improve mental health.
They compared the data, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, with the risk of developing one of 16 different mental disorders later in life. Children surrounded by high amounts of green space in childhood were up to 55 per cent less likely to develop a mental disorder – even when considering known risk factors such as socioeconomic status, urbanisation and a family history of mental health problems. Noise, air pollution, infections and poor socioeconomic conditions increase the risk of developing a mental disorder, according to the study. But researchers found more green space in the local area creates greater social cohesion and increases people’s physical activity levels. This can improve children’s cognitive development and impact upon their mental health.
It was during the Victorian age some 100 years that we saw some of the first city parks appear in the UK. In 1847, before a crowd of 10,000 people, the gates were officially opened to the world’s first publicly funded municipal park – Birkenhead Park. Designed by renowned gardener and architect, Sir Joseph Paxton, Birkenhead Park arose as a shining masterpiece of landscape design from what were once mere marshlands and commons.
With innovative design, incorporating elements of nature and architecture from across the globe, the intention was to bring the world to Birkenhead through picturesque visions of international culture.
Birkenhead Park was established as an idealised countryside landscape of open meadows, naturalistic woodland belts and beautiful lakes, which are shaped to appear as sinuous rivers creating scenic views of iconic features such as the Roman Boathouse and Swiss Bridge.
The creation of Birkenhead Park not only marked a significant stage in human history as a response to the poor health conditions brought on by the industrial revolution; but also represented a mid-nineteenth century vision of what a city of the future should offer society, providing everyone - irrespective of social class, age or colour - the opportunity to enjoy and engage with its beauty. It was this unique feature that has provided the inspiration for the development of some of the most significant urban parks across the world.
We know that our green spaces provide multiple benefits to local communities and wider society. Our green spaces are more than just places for recreation or to help wildlife thrive – they also provide important functions to society which have an economic value.
For example, woodlands absorb pollution and lock up carbon, which cleans our air and wetlands store water, reducing flows and help reduce the risk of flooding.
These functions benefit society and help reduce costs on local and wider communities, such as to the NHS, other public sector services and local businesses. A recent study (The Value of Our Green Spaces, January 2016) by the Land Trust states our parks, nature reserves and other open spaces provide people with accessible areas where they can reap the benefits of the natural world.
Having spent the best part of my working career managing estates, public parks and open spaces I have seen at first hand the value of these assets brings to the wider community. However, it is very disturbing to see the current plight of many local authorities, who have been faced with diminishing budgets for many years due to the austerity cuts made by recent governments. Who by the way, are still not prepared to invest properly in these national assets.
There will always be a cost to be met for the management and maintenance of these wonderful parks and open spaces, however, in real terms the actual cost of this maintenance is insignificant compared to the real value these assets bring to the community and wellbeing of the end users.
However, I am pleased to see that the UK Government this year has announced that councils across the country are to benefit from more than £13 million funding to breathe new life in to our green spaces for the benefit of all. From day-to-day maintenance costs to essential playground repairs and the creation of new green spaces, £9.7 million of new funding will give local leaders and communities resources to better maintain, protect and increase their recreational spaces.
An additional £2.75 million will also be made available for the pocket parks plus programme to support communities to take the lead in transforming their neglected and derelict spaces.
As for me, I am looking forward to this year’s Green Flag awards. They have become an essential vehicle for local authorities to maintain and retain these essential parks and public open spaces for future generations.