The government is to contribute millions to fund Manchester’s first city-centre park in 100 years, as part of a series of investments in outdoor spaces in response to the coronavirus crisis.
The new 6.5-acre Mayfield park, touted as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity”, is part of a £1.4bn development to transform the under-loved urban area between Piccadilly station and Mancunian Way, running along the River Medlock.
The £23m pledged by the government for the project is to come from the government’s £900m Getting Building fund to increase jobs, skills and infrastructure in England in the wake of the pandemic. A city-centre park in Leeds is also among the plans to receive funding from the scheme, as is a landscaped “pocket park” in Sheffield city centre.
The announcement prompted public bodies and grassroots organisations to say the coronavirus crisis had highlighted the importance of outdoor spaces for communities, and to call on the government to increase resources for existing parks following the decimation of local authority budgets over the past decade.
Figures obtained from UK councils by Unison in 2018 found that more than £15m had been cut from parks and green spaces budgets between 2016-17 and 2018-19.
Dave Morris, the chair of the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, said the lack of funding for park services had been highlighted by the increased use of public green spaces during the national lockdown.
“Under the current public health restrictions, there’s been a massive increase in the usage of public green spaces, but there hasn’t been a comparable increase in the resources that is put into managing and maintaining these spaces,” he added.
“We need to ensure that the whole population have access to a quality local public green space within walking distance of where they live. In many areas there’s a need for additional green spaces,” Morris said.
Aimee Stimpson, the national lead for healthy places for Public Health England, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has made many of us more aware of how much we value and rely on our outdoor spaces to support our health and wellbeing.
“Spending time in green spaces such as public parks can help us maintain a healthier weight, reduce our risk of conditions such as cardiovascular disease and boost our mental health.”
Jennifer White, Historic England’s national landscape advisor, said many councils had been attempting to diversify their income to increase funding for park maintenance and management by hosting events, but that this had been brought to a halt because of social distancing measures during the pandemic.
“The Manchester park is wonderful because I think we only really get a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create new parks,” said White, noting that the last large park built in England was the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, east London in 2012.
“What we desperately now need to do is make sure that the funding for public parks is adequate and secure to make sure they’re well looked after and are still providing that public service.”
A recent Public Health England report found that while there is greater understanding of the health and wellbeing benefits of parks, inequalities in the distribution, quality, quantity and use of green spaces remains.
It added that in England and Wales, houses and flats within 100 metres of public parks and green spaces are an average of £2,500 more expensive than they would be if they were more than 500 metres away, although £2.1bn per year could be saved in public health costs if everyone in England had access to green spaces.
Public parks and green spaces were first built in Britain in the 1840s amid the industrial revolution, when authorities recognised there was a need to improve the living conditions in densely populated towns, which White suggested echoed the current climate.
“The powers to create public parks were established in the  Health Act. There was a really clear association early on that parks were there for the health and wellbeing of the community,” she said.
The Manchester project – being led by Manchester city council, Transport for Greater Manchester, the Department for Transport’s development company LCR and property development company U+I – will also oversee the building of 1,500 homes, offices, a hotel, retail and leisure space, roads, cycleways and walkways.