How much more evidence do we need to invest in green spaces?

We know green spaces are good for us. The evidence is overwhelming. So why don’t we invest in what we know to be healthy and helpful, when we can find £522 million to subsidise people who want a meal out?

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It was questions like these that inspired my and my co-editor Nicola Dempsey to produce the new edited collection, Naturally Challenged: Contested perceptions and practices in urban green spaces. We kept wondering why professionals kept asking for more evidence when they didn't act on the evidence in front of them.  

In case there’s any doubt about the evidence, earlier this year a team at Sheffield Hallam University produced a report, Space to Thrive, which reviewed nearly 400 recent academic papers on the social benefits of urban parks. As well as supporting physical and mental health, which you’d expect, parks also play an important community role, bringing people together and enabling people to feel more involved in society.

But we also know that parks and green spaces are underfunded. A parliamentary inquiry three years ago found they were at a ‘tipping point’ of decline in England. So why are they considered less important than roads (£27.4bn investment over five years in England), private houses (£3.8bn diverted to the better-off through the suspension of stamp duty in 2020-21), or prisons (£2.5bn to create an extra 10,000 prison places)?

‘We want to invest, but we can’t’

It’s not as if local councils, which are responsible for most urban parks and many other green spaces, think parks are unimportant. But between 2010 and 2017/18 central government funding for English local authorities fell by 49.1% in real terms, and spending power (taking locally raised resources into account) fell by 28.6%. There is no statutory duty for councils to create or maintain parks.

Even this year, when the importance of parks has been spotlighted during the Covid-19 lockdown because they were among the very few public places people could use, local authorities are still discussing how they can save more money from parks budgets. 

And even when there is a chance to invest, council officers often feel disempowered and unable to make the case. In recent research in Sheffield we found a series of ‘logics of inaction’, justifiable reasons for not making the improvements council staff knew would be helpful. 

Unsurprisingly, the main logic was a financial one – people believed they would not be able to justify investment compared with actions generating a perceived immediate economic benefit, like mending roads, or where there was a legal duty attached, such as social services. But we also found people were institutionally disempowered: ten years of austerity have instilled a ‘finance says no’ culture within local government. 

Evidence-seeking as myth and ceremony

A common expression of this culture of disempowerment is to seek more evidence to justify investment, but then to argue that the evidence is insufficient. One parks professional we interviewed put it like this: 

‘…what we need to do is be better and savvier at using statistics, using the work of yourself and research in the city to say, Parks and Countryside have got so much x, it provides y, the benefits are pounds and economic savings.’

But in further discussions, another made the revealing comment that ‘I don’t even try anymore’. In Naturally Challenged, we argue that evidence-seeking has become an excuse for kicking the can down the road, deferring commitment on the basis that evidence is still not good enough.

Among other topics, we investigate the ‘logics of inaction’ affecting suggested investments. Drawing on John W Meyer and Brian Rowan’s classic study in organisational theory showing how organisational structure is often a result of ‘myth and ceremony’ which services the purpose of legitimising activities, we consider evidence-seeking through the same lens. 

While organisations engage actively in the search for appropriate evidence, the evidence legitimises a process of decision-making that does not require evidence to be acted upon. Evidence-seeking becomes a justificatory activity. We argue:

‘The myth of evidence-based policy … enables proposals to be rejected on the basis of insufficient evidence, effectively masking the politics of decision-making. A concern with “what works” and “good practice” provides an appearance of logical inevitability for what is actually a political choice.’

Where does that leave the case for investing in parks and green spaces? In our view, the evidence is good enough: it is the consequent action that has failed.

Julian Dobson

senior research fellow, Sheffield Hallam University

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