I hope this article is seen as a celebration of the new initiative to promote Sheffield as the UK’s Outdoor City – which I wholeheartedly support. But also sharing some fears about the future management of our public realm, and asking the question whether we should be guided by our principles or by an increasing pragmatism in the current political circumstances.
I was privileged to attend the launch of Sheffield: The Outdoor City at a meeting of the Sheffield International Economic Commission on 16 October. This is a new initiative led by Sheffield City Council, based on findings from a research study, the Outdoor Economy Report , carried out by the Outdoor Recreation Research Group here at SHU.
Our Outdoor Economy Report revealed that the city has the highest household spend on outdoor equipment in the country, high participation rates and more than 200 outdoor businesses. The outdoor-related Gross Value Added (a measure of the value of goods and services produced in the economy) in Sheffield is £53.12m, generating an estimated employment of 1597 FTE jobs in the sector.
The report also highlights the major outdoor brands in the city, including Go Outdoors, Jagged Globe, the Foundry climbing wall, amongst many others, as well as major events such as the recent Tour de France, the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival, and the European Outdoor Summit.
Residents of Sheffield already knew all of this of course. About a year ago, a BBC Countryfile poll concluded that Sheffield is indeed the best city in the UK for countryside lovers. Sheffield received over 70% of the readers’ vote, and the BBC Countryfile magazine is already proclaiming Sheffield “Outdoors City of the Year”. Over 5600 people voted for Sheffield and many left their personal thoughts on why their local green spaces, parks, woodlands, the hills and valleys, mean so much to them.
So what can Sheffield gain by promoting itself as the Outdoor City? A panel of expert speakers all shared their thoughts at the launch. I was particularly impressed by Cllr Leigh Bramhall’s contribution – he emphasised the economic benefits to the city, but also the wider health and social benefits which can come from enhancing access to well managed green spaces. Cllr Bramhall was also careful to reinforce the notion of sustainable access. We need to encourage more people to enjoy the natural environment more often, but also to protect and enhance our special places.
The panel members also explored how this new piece of `branding` is more than just a bit of creative `marketing speak`. It actually feels true and grounded in a real sense of Sheffield – the place and its people. Sheffield is the important manufacturing city it is today because of its `ten thousand years of human history` founded on its seven hills and valleys, and the water, the woodland and the coal obtained from that landscape. These features have literally fuelled the development of the city we see today. Sheffielders have also had to fight for access to that landscape, and continue to campaign to ensure its protection. Now, as we face future challenges – both industrial and environmental – we can combine that pride in our natural heritage with our hopes for a greener, more sustainable economy based on advanced technology and innovation.
But there remain challenges if this new initiative is to go beyond just raising the city’s profile, to position Sheffield as a forward thinking and innovative green city building on its industrial and environmental heritage.
Widening participation in outdoor activity remains as critical and as problematic as ever. We know from surveys undertaken by Natural England, particularly their Monitoring Engagement with the Natural Environment surveys , that there remain barriers to everyone enjoying these same opportunities.
The 2013-14 Annual Report of the MENE survey confirmed that certain demographic and social factors affect the frequency of outdoors visits –
- People less likely to visit are those aged 65 and over, those with a long-term illness or disability, those in the lower DE social grades, and those of Black & Minority Ethnic (BAME) origin.
- Population groups that visit the outdoors less overall, tend to take visits to towns and cities when they do visit.
- Those in the AB social grades are more likely to agree strongly that their local green spaces are within easy walking distance, of good quality and easy to access, than those in the DE social grades.
This underlines the importance of removing barriers to access to the outdoors across all social boundaries, particularly if we wish everyone to benefit from the health and well-being advantages engagement with the natural environment brings. But it also emphasises that green spaces within urban areas (and not just access to the Peak District) are even more important to those groups who visit infrequently.
A second area which I feel we rather glossed over in our celebration of the Outdoor City on 16 October, is the issue of how our green spaces, parks and woodlands – even our national parks – are to be effectively managed in order that more of us can enjoy them more often. Interestingly, at least two of the panel experts at the City Hall suggested that the great thing about the outdoors was that it was `free`. I could see a few parks and woodlands managers in the audience raising an eyebrow at that comment.
Outdoor recreation is a bit like the National Health Service in this respect. It’s free at the point of use (if you ignore the travel costs, the gear, the food, etc.) – but it is clearly not free to effectively protect and manage any of these resources. We need highly skilled staff and we need ongoing maintenance budgets to ensure that our green spaces are kept safe, beautiful, rich in wildlife and accessible to all. In the past, these essential services have been seen as the `public realm` – managed either by local or national park authorities, or by non-governmental organisations such as the wildlife trusts and the National Trust. But what happens in an `age of austerity`, under a central government who are clearly not committed to the `public realm`, either philosophically or in practice?
We know some of the answers already – the Heritage Lottery Fund has brought much of the evidence together in a recent 2014 publication The State of UK Public Parks. In that report, the benefits of our green spaces are clearly and carefully laid out: local green spaces are central to family life in our cities and towns; they support health and happiness; they improve social cohesion; they promote local economic development; and they deliver a whole range of essential environmental services such as air quality improvements, climate and flood regulation, and enhanced biodiversity. The report also states that people value these assets. Yet there are threats which these services face right across the UK. This HLF infographic from that report summarises both their importance and some of those threats – budgets across all local authorities are being slashed in response to cutbacks from central government. Skilled staff are lost and not replaced, and increasing pressure placed on remaining staff to seek sponsorship and commercial opportunities across their services. Essential maintenance is cut back, as councils prioritise spending in services such as social care and education.
I have reflected in previous articles on this blog about the need for creative thinking on this subject. Both Sheffield City Council and the Peak District National Park Authority are seeking ever more imaginative ways of raising money from private sources. The Peak District National Park Authority has launched a `Sticker for Stanage`, which allows members of the public to support the management of that iconic estate (as well as some free car parking and camping!) through the purchase of a car sticker.
I believe Sheffield City Council has taken a bold and innovative step to try to plan the best way forward for the future. They have joined a project, along with Manchester City Council and the National Trust, and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to explore alternative models for funding public parks and green spaces in the 21st century. Working with the think tank `Nesta`, this project will consider the wider benefits and ecosystem services which local green spaces can provide to our society, and look at different models for funding these services, such as endowment funds, charitable trusts, `Friends` groups, and public donations. A Nesta report on Re-thinking Parks earlier this year reflected on some alternative models for funding these services. We are still waiting to hear about some of the findings from workshops held earlier in the year to explore these issues.
So how do we – the public – wish to be involved in this process? We have some recent experience in Sheffield of how a public/private sector partnership might work in managing some of our finest green features – our street trees – and that has had a rocky beginning (to say the least). I can see how some of the larger charities such as the National Trust might be interested in our major parks, such as Endcliffe Park and Graves Park – but will they be able (or willing) to manage the local rec’ at the end of your street?
I also have a vague sense of foreboding around the increasingly limited options for the future management of the public realm. I understand that in a democracy, we are now stuck with the current government’s views – at least for the next few years. And I attach no blame whatsoever to our City Council – I am sure they would wish to retain these services within a properly funded public sector. I also share the wishes of those people who care for our parks and woodlands to manage them to the best of their ability with whatever funds they can find. But do I really want my public community spaces sponsored by commercial businesses or one step removed from local accountability? I am not so sure.
I find myself utterly torn between two possibly conflicting positions: adhering to the principle of ensuring our public green spaces are effectively managed and protected by people who have both the right skills and are electorally accountable; and the pragmatism of supporting any mechanism to ensure these places remain properly funded so they can be both protected and enjoyed by more people, more often.
The City Council is consulting us now on a new strategy to enhance our outdoor spaces, possibly through the creation of several new recreation hubs around the city. It is essential that all of us who care about the future of our green spaces in Sheffield make our views heard through this process. Let the City Council know what you value about these places and how you want to see them protected.
The consultation will last until 29 November – so make your views count. As well as using the Citizen Space web site, you can also email your consultation response to CreativeSheffield@sheffield.gov.uk or post it to: The Outdoor City Consultation, Creative Sheffield, 11 Broad Street West, Sheffield, S1 2BQ.
These are challenging times for the protection and management of our most valued public spaces – but we also need to get out there and enjoy them. The City Council’s new web site has plenty of ideas for places you can walk, run, climb and ride – www.theoutdoorcity.co.uk – just get out there and have fun!