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Victorian cure for modern health scourge

Published: 21st September 2007

HEALTH experts are calling for Victorian parks to be restored to their former glory to solve 21st Century obesity and health problems.

First built to promote public health in the 19th century, urban parks have fallen into disrepair and are generally underused, poorly equipped and are associated with grime and crime.

But a report by Manchester Metropolitan University and the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University argues that the 3,000 urban parks in the North West should play a key role in reversing inactivity and trimming waistlines.

And they call for more joined up thinking and more innovative planning to get people back into parks and keeping healthy.

Rich legacy

Principal lecturer in urban conservation at MMU, Dr Phil Wheater said: "We’ve got a rich legacy here in the North West. City parks were pioneered in the great northern towns of Manchester and Liverpool as an antidote to smog.

"Parks served a public health need then and arguably we need them even more today when obesity is costing the NHS £1 billion a year*."

"Today children cannot play in the street because of our car culture, so we need to attract them back to the parks."

The 140-page report which is backed by NHS North West, the Government Office North West and a host of green and health agencies, found that only 9% of urban parks had 5-a-side pitches, only 10% had skateboard/BMX areas, and 29% had tennis courts.

Similarly, only 5% had a park-ranger, 22% had toilets, and just 6% had a café. Though an encouraging 66% have play areas for children.

The report also found:

- access to information about parks was poor
- activities to reverse the decline in parks focused on facilities rather than usage
- an exodus to ‘sanitised’ gyms

"Lottery and other monies have been spent on the physical upkeep of parks in recent years, but local authorities need to be much more innovative than to simply replace worn out facilities.

"They need to think strategically about leisure and the environment and market parks to a more sophisticated public," added Dr Wheater.

Walter Menzies, Chief Executive of the Mersey Basin Campaign said: "Healthy communities begin with decent housing and public parks. We have a very long way to go here in the Northwest. This report is an important contribution to the debate."

Notes:

The report recommends that the health benefits of parks can be maximised by:
- Developing the role of park staff to champion health;
- Active promotion of parks by health practitioners;
- Reviewing park facilities to encompass the needs of all users;
- Encouraging schools to use parks; and
Developing a regional urban park website with details of locations and facilities for the public.

*If current obesity trends continue, nearly one third of children under eleven are predicted to be obese or overweight by 2010.

What they said:

Dr Ruth Hussey, Regional Director of Public Health, NHS North West: "This report challenges us to think differently about the opportunities parks provide to support a better sense of well being as well as a place for exercise, culture, contact with the environment and as a social place…As climate change affects us it is essential that green space is available in towns and cities to counterbalance the heat generated by urban life."

Liz Newton, Director of North West Region Natural Health: "Urban parks provide an important oasis for those who live around them, and give an opportunity for people to interact with their natural environment. It is important that this valuable resource is managed for the health and wellbeing of the North West population."

Patrick White, Executive Director and Policy, North West Development Agency: "Welcome the focus NHS Northwest is taking to better health and all things that contribute to keeping people healthy. Access to green space for our urban communities is clearly a vital element of this.”

Ian MacArthur, Regional Director of Groundwork Northwest: "This type of approach (as set out in the report) encouraging engaged and vibrant community ‘ownership’ of parks and green-spaces will be vital if they are to fulfil their potential and become essential community assets rather than places for youth nuisance and anti social behaviour."

Neil Cumberlidge, Deputy Regional Director of Environment, Resilience and Rural at the Government Office North West: "Urban parks are an undervalued resource. We need to do more to maximise the environmental, health and socio-economic benefits they offer."

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The Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University specialises in applied research and educational programmes which address health issues, from policy development to service delivery. Please visit www.cph.org.uk for more information on the Centre.

Staff at the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences at Manchester Metropolitan University have long been involved in multidisciplinary research linking urban ecology with community involvement.

www.egs.mmu.ac.uk/users/smarsden/Research/appecol.htm