community greenspace nature

The rhythms of a park

How best to value a siskin, blackcap or whitethroat? Their wealth, the wealth they distribute or embody, is imperceptible unless you recognise that half-seen movement or half-heard song as part of what makes you alive, more in tune with the world, perhaps – part of a music you mostly only catch in snatches. 

The music of a park is rhythm and improvisation. The syncopation of joggers – look, here she comes again, pounding the pathways with the bored collie who doesn’t consider this much of a playtime – and toddlers discovering their first endorphins as they feel how high the swing can go: push me harder, mum, push me harder!

The restored lake at Grosvenor & Hilbert Park, Tunbridge Wells.

The rhythms combine and extend, fast and slow, the rapid-fire laughter and banter of teenagers on their way home from school, parents pushing prams, and the unseen movements of decay and fungal growth and the leaching of iron-rich chalybeate springs through reed-beds and runnels. 

What good does a park do? You can tabulate and quantify and categorise. Here are some categories: we know that being able to use a park is good for physical health, mental wellbeing and satisfaction with life. We know parks can offer opportunities for social integration, for building invisible bridges between near neighbours. Those bonds become stronger as people come together to pick litter or help to care for the plants and trees. We know that for many people the local park is their opportunity to connect with the rest of the natural world and to remember that nature is our story too. Parks reduce the cost of environmental damage, countering the effects of pollution, and reduce the cost of social damage from sedentary and time-pressured working lives. We know these things instinctively, but we also know because hundreds – literally – of academic studies have reinforced this knowledge. 

For those whose lives are measured in categories and quantities (and we are embedded in a culture that constantly genuflects to categories and quantities) these all matter. But they matter mainly because they make visible and legitimate the connections between us and the more-than-human world that matter more. 

That mattering, though, is inevitably constrained in the process of being made visible and legitimate, even if these are the actions necessary to protect it. Definitions shrink and box in the springs that bubble up under hillsides, the mulch and moss of a woodland, the flight patterns of waxwings and contested territories of song thrushes. And yet for those who have forgotten their importance, or have lost the language to translate it into the work of human society, these are necessary reminders. In their small way they resist a tide of forgetfulness, perhaps long enough for the tide to start to turn. 

So, as a small contribution towards resisting forgetfulness, here is another report, bringing together much of the evidence of why parks matter. It is offered in the hope that it will be read and will influence decision-makers, but also in the hope that it will soon become redundant, and for the right reasons: that a time will soon come when it is no longer necessary to make an argument for the obvious. 

By Julian Dobson

@juliandobson on Twitter, writer and editor on anything to do with place and society. Researcher at Sheffield Hallam University. Occasional academic and creative writing too.

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