‘Knocked down barriers’: Councillors and residents celebrate Camden’s £600k parks for health strategy

Vicky Lee with her images of Caledonian Park. Photograph: Julia Gregory

“I was looking for joy, for what made me happy,” said Vicky Lee, who found trips to nearby parks helped her deal with the pandemic.

The Camden resident set herself a photography project during those walks and recalled: “The second winter of the pandemic was hard for me. I became more aware I was being slowed down.

“It was a project to make myself come out and walk.

“I was aware of the seasons as they changed and I photographed the tower reflected in a puddle, a bee on spring crocuses and the sunlight just before the solstice in the trees.”

An exhibition of her work is on display at Caledonian Park and she has been asked to photograph the trees there.

It’s the kind of thing Camden and Islington councils are keen to encourage as part of their new parks for health strategy.

It aims to get people using their open spaces to boost their health and enjoy activities such as sport, gardening, and growing food.

The councils used more than £667,000 of funding awarded in 2019 – with money from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, National Trust and Greater London Authority – to draw up plans to use green spaces as a way of making people healthier.

It saw them join forces with 36 park user groups, 53 voluntary organisations and nine GP practices which prescribe activities to boost patients’ health.

Camden’s head of green spaces Oliver Jones said: “The pandemic’s really changed our way of thinking and changed our way to accept ideas from outside.”

He said it meant councils have embraced ideas like the talking bench, which will be unveiled in Camden this summer as a tool to overcome isolation, and food-growing in Kilburn.

“It’s knocked down some barriers.”

Two women enjoy a walk through Highbury Fields. Photograph: Islington Council

The councils have also worked with community groups to ensure everyone knows the parks are free and open to all, such as letting people know there are dog-free parks if they prefer those.

Projects also include growing food with Elm Village and Castlehaven community groups to help people benefit from getting outside and enjoying the fruits of their labour.

Anna Wright, the councillor in charge of health and wellbeing in Camden, said two in five residents do not have access to private outdoor space – the third highest in the country.

“Our parks therefore act as shared gardens for those who do not have one and provide a space to relax, be sociable and keep active,” she explained.

“Indeed, research has shown that regular use – at least once a week – of a green space is associated with a 43 per cent lower risk of poor general health.”

She said the collaboration with Islington, GPs and users groups was invaluable.

“The care the user groups give to their parks is inspiring. Their love of open spaces really inspires them.”

She said the pandemic had accelerated our understanding of the value of the great outdoors.

The daily exercise allowed during lockdown really opened up spaces and “gave people a sense of ownership”, she said.

The project has seen an increase in GP referrals for activities such as walking, gardening, and growing food.

Cerdic Hall, primary care nurse consultant and recovery lead at Camden and Islington mental health trust explained the value of getting outdoors.

“We are really dealing with the Covid shellshock and people are being left with a sense of isolation and the inequalities have been writ large,” he said.

“Green spaces are a way for us to gather ourselves and tune into ourselves and what our needs are.”

Donna Turnbull, Voluntary Action Camden’s community development manager, said the new strategy is “very important for long Covid”, because part of the rehabilitation is “getting outside and walking in parks”.

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