Funding cuts to Bristol Parks could affect the safety of women and girls
By Cordelia Lonsdale
From the rolling slopes of Victoria Park, to the stunning views over The Downs, we Bristolians are lucky enough to have a range of wonderful parks and green spaces in which to exercise, walk our dogs, and relax with family and friends.
But, as the Guardian recently put it, the UK’s parks are ‘in crisis’. And Bristol especially is feeling the bite. This May, Bristol City Council approved a series of decisions to slash the Parks budget, as the Council tries to close their £108m budget gap. According to the Parks and Green Spaces ‘Future Funding Model 2018-2020’, the Council hope to save money by:
- Reducing grounds maintenance and sports equipment costs (some public toilets have also been closed city-wide this year, including some in parks, like St George’s Park)
- Removing play equipment when it breaks or wears, instead of repairing it
- Relying on volunteers groups in some cases, to maintain and manage green spaces.
They plan a range of income-generating activities such as hosting events, charging more for car-parks; inviting advertising; increasing income from cafes and concessions; charging fees for businesses which use the parks, such as dogwalkers and fitness clubs; and inviting more commercial activities (e.g: aerial adventure courses and car boot sales). They need to raise cash to counter the loss of public funds: by April 1st 2019 the parks and green spaces revenue budget will be reduced to £1.6m, a £4.35m reduction since April 2014.
How does this affect women?
There’s been little attention so far on the impact of these changes on Bristol’s women and girls. But parks are one of a range of public spaces in which women and girls already feel unsafe, and the cuts may exacerbate the problem. The limited data (unfortunately, sexual harassment is very under-reported), indicates a solid basis for the perception that women are not always safe in Bristol parks. A recent survey conducted by Bristol Zero Tolerance found just under half the women surveyed had experienced sexual harassment, in many of Bristol’s favourite parks. One respondent commented “I don’t tend to go on my own, or at night to these places.”
At national level, a 2016 Yougov poll found that one-third of UK women have received unwanted contact of a sexual nature when in a public space, including parks. And sadly, serious sexual assaults have occurred in Bristol Parks in the last few years (in Castle Park, Netham Park, Victoria Park and The Downs).
There are clear links between a lack of investment into design or maintenance of city parks, and how safe people feel (and actually are) using them. The Council itself, in the Bristol Parks and Green Spaces Strategy (2008) states:
“Raising the quality of park and green spaces in Bristol, through improved park facilities and park maintenance, is fundamental in improving real and perceptions of safety.”
In regard to women specifically, a 2016 report by Healthbridge, an NGO states:
“The physical characteristics of parks that create safer environments for women include lighting, the presence of a diversity of people, well-maintained spaces that are free of vandalism, and access to help [formal surveillance by staff].”
These elements, especially the provision of staff, cost money to deliver. Their provision may be eroded in Bristol over time, in response to the drastic cuts.
When women don’t feel safe, they don’t use parks
Perceptions of safety have a direct impact on park use. A survey conducted in Bristol in 2007 found that ‘fear over personal safety’ is the main reason for people choosing not to visit parks and green spaces. This can lead to a downward spiral. People – particularly minority groups, women, children and older people – stop using parks when they feel scared. Then, anti-social behaviour has a space to proliferate.
Of course, it is possible that some Bristol parks might see increased use as a result of the commercial activity introduced by the Council’s new approach – generated by cafes or public events, for example. But this impact may be unevenly spread across the city, and concentrated in the summer months. And there are a lot of unknown factors. Such as: what if the Council don’t attract the private activity they hope to? It can be time-consuming and complex to effectively build and manage a range of relationships with private actors – this isn’t necessarily a ‘low-staffing’ option. A patchy mixture of private companies, and volunteers, may not be sufficient to fill the gaps left by full-time Park Department employees.
And, unfortunately, inequality in Bristol is likely to mean that the impact hits women and girls in the poorest communities the hardest. Volunteers may step up to maintain their park, but Friends groups tend to be most active in the more affluent wards. The time needed and consistent year-round effort required for regular park maintenance is an incredibly big ask for even the most active volunteers (this also means that maintenance standards are likely to slip across Bristol). Some of the parks recently seeing an upswing in anti-social behaviour, like Castle Park, don’t actually have a Friends group (though we’re told some local people are now trying to start one). The long-term impacts on the mental and physical wellbeing of women and girls in these communities – who may lose a safe green space to walk, or take their kids to play, and may even be at increased risk of sexual harassment or violence – could be serious.
Bristol Parks Forum, which brings together community parks groups across Bristol, told me they believe the Council should prioritise park maintenance and staffing, despite ongoing pressure on budgets. BPF’s Rob Acton-Campbell commented: “We want everyone in Bristol to be able to visit their local parks & green spaces and enjoy the physical and mental health benefits they bring.”
What can be done?
In an ideal world, we would invest much more in maintaining and improving Bristol city parks, with specific attention to the needs of women and girls, and the need to reduce risk of sexual harassment and violence. Parks can play an active role in making cities feel safer for women. (For example, a project in Vienna which designed city public spaces to specifically meet the needs of women and girls, actively increased the numbers of girls using the parks). This kind of approach would be progressive, and could have huge benefits for the city in general as well as women.
But being realistic, this is pretty unlikely in the current climate. And that’s sad, because in 2015, the UK Government committed along with other member states, to deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). (Bristol City Council has also said it wants to ‘localise’ the goals, even appointing a Council SDG Ambassador).
The SDGs include the target:
Goal 11/Target 7: By 2030, provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.
Unfortunately, the funding cuts to Bristol Parks may make achieving this target a distant dream. We hope that, as the Council implement their recent decisions, they will consult women, to minimise the impact of the funding cuts to the safety and wellbeing of women and girls.
What can you do?
If you want to know more about how to respond in the future to sexual harassment or violence experienced in Bristol’s public places, please refer to our resources:
We are trying to improve our understanding of sexual harassment in Bristol. Please add incidents to the Bristol Street Harassment Project online mapping tool.
If you want to get more involved in supporting or improving your local park, contact your local Friends group or Bristol Parks Forum.