Healthy neighbourhoods case study: Parks for Health

What would it look like if we put health at the heart of a park service? London Boroughs Camden and Islington are working together to achieve this. The ambitious Parks for Health project seeks to change parks and green spaces from passive health enablers to play a central role in improving physical and mental health, increasing social cohesion and reducing social isolation. As healthcare providers see their resources increasingly stretched, we take a look at how the project is bringing different sectors together and putting parks at the heart of the early intervention and prevention agenda.

Image credit: LBs Camden & Islington

What is Parks for Health?

The pandemic has highlighted the stark reality of unequal access to green spaces across England with one in five people losing out on the benefits of quality local green space. But it also raised the profile of parks and their invaluable contribution to our health and wellbeing. Regular use of open space is associated with a 43% lower risk of poor general health. In recognising that our parks have a key role in safeguarding and improving health, LBs Camden and Islington’s Parks for Health project, aims to:

  1. Increase and diversify use of parks
  2. Strengthen the evidence base for investment in parks for community health and wellbeing benefits
  3. Maximise local partnerships with the NHS, social care, Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) and others to reduce health inequalities
  4. Contribute to Covid recovery

The project represents a “fundamental cultural shift in the way that we [councils] do parks,” explained Andrew Bedford, Head of Green Space and Leisure, LB Islington. The management of parks has traditionally centred around operations. While this remains important, Parks for Health looks to use partnerships to improve the physical and social infrastructure of parks to maximise health and inclusion outcomes including:

  • Improved social cohesion
  • Less social isolation
  • Increased physical health
  • Better mental health and wellbeing
  • Reduced health inequalities

“Parks for Health is leading the way for systematic change in the perception of green spaces as public heath assets.”

Ruth Knight, Green Infrastructure Team, GLA

With combined funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, the National Trust, MHCLG, the GLA and local authorities, the project has come at a critical time with Parks departments facing funding cuts putting high quality green spaces under threat.

Though the project is just starting its delivery phase, Parks for Health has already made great progress in demonstrating the value of parks and broadening the case for health through building sustainable partnerships and ensuring decisions makers and communities see parks as critical health assets.

Image credit: LBs Camden & Islington

Collaboration is key

Central to the project’s success has been collaboration with the health, voluntary and community sectors. Recognising that these sectors are complex, Camden and Islington have worked hard to engage and inform partners through co-design processes. “We now have considerable engagement with the health sector” said John Thorne, Parks for Health Partnership Manager, LBs Camden & Islington. Previously, it was difficult to engage the health sector with initiatives for physical activity but being able to make the case for parks has improved this massively. The councils have also made sure to build on existing structures and networks instead of doubling up or creating new ones.

“The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has taught us how much a valuable asset our inner-city parks are for mental and physical health. These green gems provide the space to exercise our bodies and our minds and facilitate the connectivity that we thrive on. […] Parks for Health share our vision to make our parks become centres of health, wellbeing and joy for all our communities.

Julie Parish, Octopus Community Network, Islington

The project identified two target groups as part of the councils’ Covid recovery plans – ethnic minority groups and people with a mental health condition. “The very people we want to help are they very people who are most anxious and it’s a long journey to overcome that,” explained Oliver Jones, Head of Green Spaces, LB Camden. VCS organisations provided vital connections with residents the Parks teams would normally have difficulty reaching.

Relationships with partners Whittington Health, Age UK and Brightstart teams from the council facilitated the running of an intergenerational event held by LB Islington to establish issues and barriers preventing use of parks. Groups like AgeUK have buddies and mentors that can get people out into green spaces. Direct contact with residents meant they were able to answer important questions from prospective participants like ‘are there toilet facilities at the park?’. Andrew explained that by combining expertise, partners have been able to bring people in that Parks departments “could spend a decade trying to bring in.”

Image credit: LBs Camden & Islington

Parks for Health in action

As the project shifts from co-design to delivery stages, Parks for Health has already had great success with a green social prescribing pilot. Co-design of socially prescribed activities with target groups gave people the confidence to get involved in activities they may have otherwise avoided. Staff noted an improvement in individuals’ health and wellbeing, including reduced anxiety and improved social connections.

One challenge the teams faced was that GPs did not fully understand or buy into the concept of social prescribing. This led to confusion about the referrals process and low turnout at initial activities. Parks for Health worked hard to address this, providing additional support to GPs. They have developed a charter that links GP practices to their local parks and Greenspace Teams so that frontline health partners can better understand what’s on offer and keep up to date. They have also opened up some activities to self-referral, using community networks and voluntary organisations to promote them.

“Walking to Camden’s green spaces with a group of local residents I had never met before four weeks ago has changed my life and changed me.”

Green social prescribing pilot participant

Now, activities are starting in two parks for groups most affected by Covid, with plans to eventually scale up. Co-design and relationship building with partners means activities fit the needs of the communities and run smoothly.

Parks staff now have a stronger awareness of the specific needs of communities and are able to help support voluntary organisations deliver activities in the councils’ parks. They have also been working on improving making their parks more accessible and inclusive – expanding toilet provision and revaluating public transport access. Health and wellbeing are now a priority for the parks departments who are working on internal training and engagement to make it an inherent part of everyone’s role.

Key learnings

95% of the UK health budget is used for medical treatment. 40% of this could be saved if more attention was turned to tackling the causes – parks are cost effective way to promote health and wellbeing. Looking to Parks for Health for inspiration, what can we learn?

  • Publicity and communication first and foremost – Parks for Health realised a communication issue was the root cause of initial low attendance to green social prescribing activities. The communications methods you may normally use for people within your sector may not work elsewhere, be creative in your communications and mostly importantly, shout about what you’re doing
  • Take advantage of partners’ different strengths to cut across silo working for the best possible outcomes – are you looking to work more with the community? VCS organisations know their communities best and have direct lines of contact. Combine your expertise and networks.
  • Actively involve all stakeholders in design and delivery together – in the case of Parks for Health, residents felt empowered to deliver their own health if they see GPs and parks working together and understand the holistic health offer being presented.
  • Internal engagement and training activities are just as vital as external activities – it is important to get people excited about health-related projects to build support and get everybody to see it as a vital part of their role.