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  • Writer's pictureActiveXchange

Parks don’t count, literally!

We are not implying that they don’t matter—far from it! Hear us out.

Written by Tony Leach, Chief Executive of Parks for London, with contributions from Ben Jones from ActiveXchange UK/Europe

It’s been nearly 200 years since Robert Slaney MP demonstrated the link between data, recreation and social progress for the 1833 Select Committee on Public Walks. This committee was tasked with exploring and promoting the need to provide public walks and open spaces for the “comfort, health and content” of the population in the wake of increasing urbanisation, deteriorating public health and widening class disparities.

The issues discussed then bear a striking resemblance to the challenges we face today. Why though, having accumulated nearly two centuries' worth of data showcasing the myriad benefits of access to urban green and open space do we still grapple with similar issues? Is it because parks don’t count?

What we mean is that despite possessing extensive data [1] on the types and distribution of over 3,000 parks and green spaces in London, as well as the flora and fauna within them, we lack crucial information on the number of visitors these spaces receive. And because public parks do not have turnstiles—a blessing in itself—we need to rely on alternative measures to gather this data.

But why count?

In times of challenge for the public purse and with most urban green spaces under the care and responsibility of local government, not having insights on the use of these spaces hampers our ability to quantify any social returns they yield.

If we can deepen our understanding of who and why people use parks, we can make a stronger case for their protection, maintenance, and better yet, investment into them.

Who’s counting?

The Royal Parks count—according to their website they receive over 77 million visitors a year across their eight parks [2]—as well as some parks with people counters installed as a condition of lottery funding. But hardly any other landowner of public parks and green spaces in London does.

There are, however, technological solutions—from geolocated social media, and crowd-sourced images, to mobile phone data—available to plug the gap, and in a sense, the data is already there waiting to be mined and analysed.

So, what’s the issue?

A big reason is the cost of accessing and analysing such data. Many local authorities are stuck in a loop of not being able to pay, with their shoestring parks budgets, for access to this vital data that could strengthen their case for protected or increased funding.

Another barrier to utilising technological solutions is the confidence and competence required to use, interpret and apply the outputs. But ActiveXchange’s Academy’s approach of connecting local authorities and park operators to facilitate mutual support and learning throughout their data utilisation journey has shown to help them get the most from their digital assets.

How can we count?

These days, beyond physically counting visitors on the ground, there are many ways at our disposal to collect quantitative data on park usage—counting mats, infrared counters, video footage counters, AI sensors, phone signals etc.—each with their benefits and limitations.

Here are some factors we recommend you consider when deciding on a suitable approach:

  • Consistency/replicability: if you do it again, will you get the same result?

  • Geographic coverage: does the solution capture all the areas you are interested in?

  • Human resource requirements: do you need to allocate sustained labour resources?

  • Technical expertise: does it require specialist knowledge to undertake or interpret?

  • Reliability: how confident can you be that what you are getting is objective and true?

  • Validity: do the outputs you get help you to answer the questions you have?

  • Cost: is it sustainable, or value for money?

What can we do with visitor data?

Infrastructure and service planning: decision-making around development; protection or rationalisation of facilities, spaces, and places

Commissioning and investment: supporting grant applications and business cases

Reporting: internal and external up-to-date tracking and benchmarking of performance and impact reporting

Operations: more efficient and proactive maintenance scheduling and development work

Environment: measure and compare use for alignment with net zero, carbon reduction and air quality initiatives, or understanding use patterns for mitigating impacts to wildlife

Engagement: comparisons with data on the wider local community to see who isn’t using the park to guide outreach efforts or understanding of changes needed

Sustainability: informing land management, nature recovery plans, and green infrastructure strategies

Revenue generation: understanding volumes of people moving through spaces, providing an evidence-base for assigning commercial value to sites (i.e., leases, sponsorship etc.), and making informed decisions about where to focus limited budgets

Economic regeneration: the data correlates with economic activity, helping track the effectiveness of initiatives, for example, the impact of nearby planning proposals

Tourism: understand and influence the movement of people to and around destinations

New insights and stakeholder coordination: understanding the use of spaces never previously measured such as trails, waterways, forests, and green corridors.

Let’s not stop at counting

Knowing how many people visit our parks and green spaces is merely the starting point. Quantitative data can tell you about people who are using the parks, up to an extent.

It won’t tell you about why people are or are not using parks i.e., the barriers and the community’s likes or dislikes. It won’t tell you how far they travelled to get to the park, how long they stayed, or what facilities they used. It won’t tell you what else people might like to see in an area, or where and why they might feel unsafe.

Bringing together a variety of sources of insights, both quantitative and qualitative, will always be the best approach for truly understanding the impacts of our parks and green spaces. It can help landowners evaluate if these spaces are contributing to strategic goals (e.g., health and physical activity) and make better decisions to maximise their value.

Will you count? Comment below and let us know if you or your organisation would like to collaborate with us to be a part of the solution!


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