North East parks are our 'Natural Health Service'

£60m has been invested in North East parks since 1994 to help bring them back into use by all

Wallsend Horticulture and Parks Manager Jerry Dronsfield (left) and Carl McClean, Wallsend Parks Manager in Richard Dees PArk, Wallsend
Wallsend Horticulture and Parks Manager Jerry Dronsfield (left) and Carl McClean, Wallsend Parks Manager in Richard Dees PArk, Wallsend

It's called the Natural Health Service - and sums up the therapeutic benefits flowing from green spaces and contact with wildlife.

“Nature is good for us. This is something that we intuitively know, and for which there is mounting evidence,” says Northumberland Wildlife Trust chief executive Mike Pratt.

“Stroll through a nature reserve, or just watch wildlife from your window - all contribute to our physical, mental and emotional well being.”

For many urban dwellers, it is parks which offer a link to the natural world.

“Many people talk about “the other NHS” - the alternative and preventative health benefits that nature provided for free,” says Mike.

“After all, we are animals and are intrinsically linked to the ecosystem and life support provided through the surrounding environment.

“So it’s no surprise that we feel better when we interact with wildlife, and enjoy the open air and green spaces, benefitting from the therapeutic qualities of the natural world.”

The Wildlife Trusts is proposing a Nature and Well Being Bill which recognises the basic connection between health and the natural environment.

Mike says: “The idea is to bring together all the disparate protections and designations affecting the natural environment under one umbrella piece of legislation.

“Work has started on this and we have met senior politicians to generate interest and support.

“We will be attending all the parties’ autumn conferences to push the idea and we are trying to get manifesto pledges in advance of next year’s General Election.”

The Heritage Lottery Fund’s (HLF) Parks for People scheme, which has invested millions of pounds in restoring and improving green spaces all over the UK, has touched almost every local authority area in the North East.

Since 1994, the HLF has jointly invested with the Big Lottery Fund £60m in over 50 parks related projects in the region. Soaring visitor numbers suggest the investment has paid off in spades.

An improved outdoor space can make a significant difference to the quality of life for many people on a daily basis.

“Parks are free,” says Jerry Dronsfield, North Tyneside park and horticulture manager.

“They provide a green space, a place for physical activity and they promote health and wellbeing. It’s what we call here a Natural Health Service.

“Green spaces provide great benefits for physical and mental health, and parks were created as green lungs in polluted cities.”

Wallsend Horticulture and Parks Manager Jerry Dronsfield (left) and Carl McClean, Wallsend Parks Manager in Richard Dees Park, Wallsend
Wallsend Horticulture and Parks Manager Jerry Dronsfield (left) and Carl McClean, Wallsend Parks Manager in Richard Dees Park, Wallsend
 

Fears have been voiced that councils, faced with Government funding cuts, are in turn reducing spending on parks upkeep.

Two decades of public and lottery investment has ensured that the majority of UK parks are in better condition, but unless future funding is generated in new ways, parks are at serious risk of rapid decline and even being sold off and lost to the public forever.

“One of the important things about parks is that if they are not maintained then people don’t go in,” says Morris Boyle, retired chairman of the Friends of Barnes Park in Sunderland.

“If you don’t maintain them then they quickly fall into decline, but when there is a lot of footfall people feel safer and that encourages more visitors.”

An example is the restoration of Wallsend Parks in North Tyneside, which includes the 1900 Richardson Dees Park, Wallsend Hall grounds and Princes Road arboretum.

Comprising 40 acres over three interconnecting sites, Wallsend Parks fell into a gradual decline over the last few decades.

But that has dramatically changed since last year, thanks to a £7m lottery cash redevelopment.

Works have included refurbishing the tennis courts, improved plantings, restored views, rebuilding the Victorian bandstand, and the extension of the 1930s bowling pavilion to include a café with wi-fi, which is designed as a social hub for the area.

There is also an innovative play area, which includes a zip wire and youth shelter for older children and a sand pit for toddlers.

It has already attracted around 100,000 more visitors to the park.

“With parents, if your children are happy, then you’re happy, and Wallsend Parks is now a hive of activity, ” says Jerry.

Students working alongside local historians have produced 17 illustrated panels on the park’s history and biodiversity, which will go on permanent display.

One of the original aims was that Wallsend should become a destination park, rather than one purely for locals, says Jerry, and the evidence is that this has already happened.

“It’s a hub for the area,” he says. “What has happened is fantastic”.

Ouseburn Parks in Newcastle includes Jesmond Dene, Armstrong and Heaton parks. The parks were awarded a £4.4m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Lottery Fund with match funding from Newcastle City Council. 

Often visitors don’t realise they can walk for a full two miles between the parks without crossing a road, says parks manager Seamus Tollitt.

The overall Ouseburn Parks scheme won an award for its restoration in 2012. Attractions include a green visitor centre, landscaping, the restoration of historical buildings, the opening up of vistas and a revamp of Jesmond Dene’s Pets Corner.

And the result? “There has been a 40% increase in visitors to the parks,” says Seamus.

This huge change has been boosted by the efforts of local volunteers who range from 18 years old to 80, including people with special needs. They have donated hours of labour helping with practical conservation such as clearing paths and riverbanks to bee-keeping - there are hives on the roof of the visitor centre - or taking guided walks.

Pensioner and volunteer Maggie Dowman has been working at Jesmond Dene for 10 years.

“The vast majority of people who come with their dogs, children or on bicycles see what has been done and really appreciate it,” she says.

“It’s a beautiful park, we’re lucky to have it and it would not look as good without the Heritage Lottery Fund.”

When Barnes Park in Sunderland put a bid in for a lottery grant, local wheelchairs users and their carers were asked what they might want.

The answer was “freedom”. And the result, says Helen Peverly, project manager of the bid, is “a unique park for people who don’t usually have access to an outside space that is safe.”

Barnes Park was awarded £2.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Lottery Fund with contributions from Sunderland Council.

The park is two miles long and part of that is now a sensory garden with a camomile lawn, scented plantings, musical instruments and paths and facilities that are wheelchair-friendly.

The improvements also included restoring the historic cannon dredged form the River Wear.

“That cannon is the icon of Barnes Park,” says Morris Boyle, chairman of the Friends Group when the bid was submitted.

“Many a child in Sunderland has had their photograph taken beside that cannon. Myself included”.

Morris has been coming to the park “since I was in a pram,” he says.

“I can remember the Mayor of Sunderland doing ballroom dancing on the tennis court during the war. And I knew it before the grant, when it had fallen into disrepair and was a den for antisocial behaviour”.

Now retired, he still comes every day with his grandchildren. “There has been huge appreciation for what the improvements have done,” he says. “It’s added that bit of class that Sunderland needed”.

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