Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Why Parks Must be Safe Places

When crime is rife, and it is felt that no one cares, then people stop reporting crime anymore, because, “What’s the point? They never do anything about it!” It was for this reason that Neighbourhood Watch and Park Watch schemes were first set up to capitalise on community involvement.

Ten years ago, Winsford Gardens, Penge, London, was mostly unknown even to local residents. It had been well-kept during the 1980’s but left to it’s own devices in more recent years. If it was known, then it was avoided because it was overgrown with no clear lines of sight, and it was a haunt of alcoholics, for drug injecting and general anti-social behaviour. No one cared about that unloved place, and if that had continued it would have fallen further into dereliction, and then it would have be very likely to have been sold for housing development.

Winsford Gardens changed in 2011. By tidying it up and keeping it clean, adding new beds, features and flowers, the Penge Green Gym made it welcoming and inviting once again. As more people used the park, and saw that people cared about the space, it also became safer to use. We still had vandalism and setbacks, especially in the hours after dark, but the presence of local people who felt they now owned this park eventually meant that the anti-social behaviour moved elsewhere. This has reached a peak during lockdown. The park is heavily used every day by people of all ages including families. A playgroup visits most days. Parents feel the playground is safe for young children to play. If there is any anti-social behaviour, then other park users immediately tell us about it. People are so appreciative of the space we have created that they now give us cash donations, some on a regular monthly basis. We have achieved Community Green Flag status for the last five years running, were awarded the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, and have been showered with other awards.

This was not hugely expensive to achieve. Local volunteers gave their time for free. Tools, equipment and signage were donated by a local companies. We have been very successful at applying for and winning grant funding. All that it really required really was for some people to give a damn! And to have the full backing of Bromley Council.

Now contrast Winsford Gardens with it’s nearest local park, Betts Park, where it appears that Bromley Council has given up on keeping it safe anymore. In a full council meeting on Monday 20th July 2020, responding to questions following the recent murder there; a shooting to the back of the head, the portfolio holder for Public Protection refused any CCTV in the park. Councillor Lymer says people should avoid going to parks when it’s dark, and for years the Council has continued to decline calls to provide more lighting in Betts Park and other local parks, saying that they did not want people to be given the impression that the parks were safe places after dark.

This is simply unacceptable. We cannot have "No Go Areas" or a curfew within our city, especially places where children and young families go to play and to exercise. Local people now avoid Betts Park. There is little point in keeping the grass cut, planting flower beds and installing outdoor exercise equipment if people do not feel safe. This becomes a self-perpetuating downward cycle in the manner of the Stockholm Syndrome and Broken Window Theory, when the visible signs of crime, anti-social behaviour, and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including more serious crimes.

If you use Winsford Gardens as a case study, then you cannot hope to turn things around until you first give the impression that the park is safe and that you are doing everything in your power to make it so. You cannot have any local community involvement or the community reporting crime if people avoid going there. The alternative is for the gangs to move in and for gang culture to prevail. Not only will you lose the park, but you will lose an entire generation of children to this gang culture too.

David Fergusson

#parksmatter #loveyourpark #loveyourlocalpark #loveparks #parkswatch