Why do we need CABE Space?

Julia Thrift
30 April 2003

Julia Thrift, director of CABE Space, on the tasks faced by the organisation, the challenges it faces and the roles it will assume.

CABE Space has been set up to champion the vital role of our parks and public spaces, acting as an outspoken advocate for green and public spaces, at national, regional and local level. It will also promote best practice and understanding

Why set up yet another new organisation? There are already many organisations working very hard to improve our parks and public spaces in a variety of ways. There's Groundwork, with its network of trusts helping local people make practical improvements to their environments; there's BCTV running its excellent 'green gyms' in parks; there's the Urban Parks Forum collecting and disseminating information and creating networks; there's the Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management (ILAM) helping to raise standards among managers. And there's a constellation of other organisations, each doing their bit in their different ways, from the Landscape Institute to the Countryside Agency. There are also thousands of volunteers giving up time to improve our green spaces, from those who transform wastelands into community gardens, to those who help judge the Green Flag Awards.

However, in a sense, this very diversity of activity has caused a problem when trying to raise interest in the complex reasons for the dreadful decline in our parks and public spaces. This lack of a public focus for the issues was a problem identified by the Urban Green Spaces Taskforce when it reported a year ago. And, as someone who spent more than 10 years working as a journalist, I know how important it is - if complex issues are to be understood and publicised - for there to be one organisation that is seen to be the advocate for that issue, the place to turn to for information and inspiration.

So, one task for CABE Space is to provide a national focus, to champion the vital role of our parks and public spaces - to explain, persuade and convince people that they are valuable assets that benefit everyone's wellbeing, not - as they are sometimes perceived - as nothing but a drain on local resources. Working in close partnership with a wide range of organisations, CABE Space will draw attention to the excellent work that is already being done, helping to gain publicity for it, and to spread best practice. We will be able to support our partner organisations by acting as an outspoken advocate for green and public spaces, at national, regional and local level.

However, to fight this battle effectively we will need ammunition - we will need facts and figures to support our claims.

Those of us here today believe passionately in the value of our parks and public spaces - but passion alone isn't enough if we are to convince existing funders that they should put more money into parks, or persuade new funders of their value. Some very good research has already been done - in this country by the Urban Parks Forum, and also in other countries - to prove what we all believe to be true, that our parks and public spaces are worth investing in. But the research that has been done so far is just a start - we need far more. CABE Space will be able to collate and publicise existing research, and will have a budget to commission new research that, I hope, will convince the most sceptical of funders that good parks and public spaces create measurable value.

The first of these projects will examine the economic value and benefits of green spaces. In time - and it will take time - this should start to channel more money into both the creation and maintenance of our public spaces.

Lack of funding, however, is just one of the many problems to be tackled if we are to see sustained improvements across the country. Lack of skills is another urgent issue. And here again CABE Space will work in partnership with others - such as the Improvement and Development Agency, the Landscape Institute, ILAM and Lantra - to help create a co-ordinated approach to ensuring that the many, many people who would like to work in a park or green space can gain the skills they need to do so.

But, as well as needing more skills in our parks, we need more skills in our town halls; we need to encourage and help local authorities to aim for higher standards in terms of the creation and maintenance of their public spaces. It is no accident that the better-quality public spaces are managed by local authorities which have a coherent strategy for improvement, rather than a fragmented, ad hoc approach. To ensure a strategic approach is the norm rather than the exception, CABE Space is going to enlist the help of skilled enablers, professionals who are available to go and spend some time with local authorities, on a project-by-project basis, helping them to develop urban green space strategies. These enablers will, between them, have many different skills, and will be matched with the needs of an individual local authority, to help those local authorities that are, perhaps, struggling to make improvements catch up with those that are more successful. The scheme will be free to local authorities and given the lure of additional resources from ODPM in the shape of the liveability fund, authorities will want to ensure they are well placed to potentially access this fund.

This new strategic enabling scheme will benefit from the experience that CABE has developed over the last few years successfully running an enabling scheme to support people commissioning new public buildings. By learning from the existing CABE enabling scheme, we can ensure that the new green space enablers start to make a difference quickly. I hope that some of you here today will become enablers - or will encourage your colleagues to do so.

This is just one way in which CABE Space will benefit from being part of CABE. I know that some had hoped that the government would follow the Urban Green Spaces Taskforce's recommendation to set up an entirely new and independent agency for parks. However, I firmly believe that the decision to set up this new unit to work within CABE was the right one. Our urban green spaces are part of the whole of the public realm and will benefit from being seen in this wider context. Many of the issues that need to be addressed in our parks also need to be addressed in our public squares and streets - issues such as raising the quality of design; making places more easily accessible; improving long-term maintenance; creating play-friendly spaces; safeguarding our heritage; encouraging biodiversity; creating pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly routes through our towns and cities - all of these issues are just as relevant in our streets and squares as they are in our parks and green spaces. So, although CABE Space's immediate priorities will be parks and green spaces, in the longer term it will work equally hard to help improve all of our public spaces.

Throughout the public realm we need to encourage people to want more: we need to raise expectations, to encourage higher standards. This too will be part of CABE Space's role, again, working in close partnership with others.

For the last couple of years, in my job at the Civic Trust, I have been involved in the Green Flag Award scheme for parks and green spaces - a scheme that is beginning to raise the expectations of park users. I know from the many park managers I've met how valuable Green Flag has been in helping them to make improvements to their green spaces. I am, therefore, very pleased that the government has decided to back the Green Flag Award scheme with increased funding, and has asked CABE Space to set the strategic direction for the scheme.

Apart from the Green Flag scheme, there are many ways in which local authorities are being encouraged to improve their performance - initiatives such as Best Value, Beacon Council status, and Comprehensive Performance Assessment - all of which have a role to play. Working in partnership with others, such as the Audit Commission, CABE Space can ensure that the Green Flag Award scheme, best value, beacon council and comprehensive performance assessment are developed in a co-ordinated, complimentary way, making it easier for both local authorities and members of the public to understand what a well-managed public space should be like. So, helping to co-ordinate standards and raise expectations will be another role for CABE Space.

So, CABE Space has its work cut out. Research, standards, skills, enabling and raising the profile of our public spaces. There is a huge amount to do - and it can only be done if all of those trying to improve our public spaces work together.