The two of us behind this project are looking to relocate to Keynsham in Somerset by the summer to be closer to our family. One of the things we do when we want to get a feel for an area is have a look at the local parks. When we were last in Keynsham we took a good look at the Memorial Park which is located on the banks of the River Chew as it flows through the town. As you can see from the image above, compared to the urban and suburban parks we have where we currently live in Thurrock, it’s beautiful. There are parts of the park alongside the river where you can really get close to nature.

However, there are other aspects to Keynsham Memorial Park. A cafe, a very busy play area catering for a range of age groups and a performance area with an outdoor stage. The park also hosts a festival in the summer. A cafe where you can meet up for a chat with friends and family and not pay the eye watering prices charged by some of the establishments on the High Street! A play area where kids learn to cooperate and look out for each other while they’re playing. A site for performances and festivals that bring people from the town and surrounding areas together for a few hours to forget about the cares of the world. All of these are social activities. When fighting any threat to a park be it from austerity or greedy developers, it has to be stressed how vital they are as a space for a range of social activities. Obviously aesthetics and being close to nature matter but it’s as a space that can facilitate and host a range of social activities that in these troubled and atomised times is really important.

Another park we have had extensive involvement with is Hardie Park in Stanford-le-Hope which is in the eastern part of Thurrock. Back in our Independent Working Class Action days in the 2000s, the then dire state of the park which was pretty much a no go area was frequently raised on the doorsteps when we were canvassing. In the early 2010s, a number of residents fed up with Thurrock Council neglecting the park started to take matters into their own hands. It started out with a few community litter picks and just grew from there. Hardie Park is now run by a committee of local residents. There’s a building with a cafe and a number of meeting rooms for use by the local community. There’s a community fridge in the cafe. There’s a bicycle repair hub and shop next door to the cafe by a pentaque pitch. The flower beds are maintained by a dedicated and lively group of volunteer gardeners. All in all, Hardie Park is a very good example of how a park functions as a social space and acts as a catalyst that brings the community together.

Let’s not forget the humble pocket park. We currently live opposite one. We have extensively used the one close to our family in Keynsham while looking after our granddaughter. They may just be a stretch of grass with a few trees and some play equipment that for many people, may not merit a second glance but trust us, they’re as vital as any of the bigger parks. Imagine what it would be like living on a vast housing estate with no access to a park where the kids can run around and let off steam. It would be a nightmare. Fortunately, most urban and suburban areas have an okay(ish) network of these pocket parks but there’s always room for improvement. Defending these pocket parks against the intrusions of developers aided and abetted by councils looking to trouser some cash is every bit as important as defending any threats to the bigger parks.

In an increasingly dysfunctional society that’s becoming more divided and atomised, our local parks are vital democratic spaces that give us the opportunity to connect and build a sense of community. Any threat to a park has to be treated as an attack on the community and defeated accordingly. One way of doing this is increasing resident involvement with their local park through the mechanism of a ‘friends of’ group or if circumstances permit, taking over the running from the local authority. The more there is of this, the more power there is coming down to the grassroots where it matters.