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The Parks Staff Keeping NI Open during COVID

David McCann   Fri 16 Oct 2020

As Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful’s Green Flag Awards Week 2020 [12-16 October] comes to a close, 78 of Northern Ireland’s best-managed parks and open spaces have been recognised with the international standard of excellence, the Green Flag Award.

Our sometimes overlooked and underappreciated greenspaces have been highlighted as havens for many during the current COVID 19 Pandemic. They play a central role in helping to support and link local communities; provide recreational space, safe zones to escape and decompress, and help individuals cope with depression, anxiety and stress, so vital for health and wellbeing.

Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful (KNIB), the environmental charity who operate the Green Flag Award Scheme in Northern Ireland, has witnessed a surge in successful participating locations since the initial three awarded sites in 2008.

KNIB Local Environmental Quality Manager, Jamie Miller said,

“This year more than ever we have seen the value our parks and green spaces offer to people in Northern Ireland. They play a hugely important role in supporting the health and wellbeing of our local communities. Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful are therefore delighted that we are able to award the Green Flag Status to 78 parks and green spaces.”

To achieve the Green Flag award applicants must meet robust measures, which include a site management plan and evidence candidates comply with a range of strict criteria including horticultural standards, cleanliness, environmental management, biodiversity, community involvement and safety standards.

Judged annually by a volunteer panel of experts, who assess the management plans and the applicant sites through a rigorous judging process, the awards also recognise the great input of community-based ventures through the Green Flag Community Awards, where the sites are managed and maintained by loyal volunteers working at a local level.

However, without the ongoing hard work of the park managers, staff and volunteers from our local green spaces in Northern Ireland, none of this would be possible. From behind the scenes key workers from Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council and Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, share their lockdown lowdown on their on-going efforts to keep our local parks and green spaces safe and sound during the pandemic and beyond.

Leanne McShane (Parks Development Officer) and David Mayers (Parks Development Officer) Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council -

“As key workers we continued working through the last lockdown and were asked to help out in other areas such as refuse and waste across the Borough. Our recreational sites and parks closed initially, as our first priority is always the safety of our users. However, once reopened, we saw a significant increase in footfall with perhaps the biggest hurdle being our signage, as we had to ensure users were aware of new procedures.

We feel that lockdown brought with it then and will do once again now, a newfound respect and a greater appreciation of parks along with the ability to reconnect with nature. In particular, safe open spaces gives a sense of freedom for many who struggle with mental health issues, helping them to cope with life and pandemic challenges. Parks have become an essential service for mental as well as physical health and we continue to strive to maintain a high standard with restricted staff by introducing innovative design and planting.

Social distancing didn’t stop during the summer months as we ran our Get Active Outdoors Summer Programme with a diversity of activities, from serene Tai Chi to Baby and Mum and Green Gyms to Boot Camps. Everyone should make use of their local parks as they continue to offer a welcoming, safe and accessible place to meet or just be.”

Lord Mayor of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon, Councillor Kevin Savage commented:

“I’m absolutely delighted for our residents and staff that ten parks across our borough can proudly fly the prestigious Green Flag. Securing this remarkable recognition is a testament to our dedicated and diligent officers, parks and grounds maintenance staff who work tirelessly all year round to ensure these important places are well maintained, welcoming and safe.

“Our parks and green spaces play a vital role for the health and wellbeing of our residents, they provide a safe and open place for quiet reflection, exercising, recreational activities, reconnecting with nature as well as offering a sense of freedom. As a council we are committed to ensuring these beautiful natural assets remain safe, welcoming and accessible for everyone.”

Lindsay Houston (Principal Parks Officer) and Alison Diver (Growing Communities Officer) - Mid and East Antrim Council

“Our golf course at Whitehead, has been a huge success this year with more than 65% increase in memberships from last year. Lockdown certainly highlights what is important to people and it is clear that parks, open spaces and nature are high up on the priority list. It also became obvious to us that the parks and open spaces are a lifeline to many. While we are always very happy to see people using our open spaces, the current situation brings a new level of concern with regard to ensuring that sites are safe and people are using them appropriately. We have seen a massive increase in daily footfall in all the parks in the Borough.

Our allotment garden facilities has remained open through the pandemic. We’ve seen waiting lists for plots increase dramatically as more people have realised the benefits of growing your own for physical and mental health and wellbeing and for food security. I’m hopeful we’ll be able to expand our provision to accommodate the growing demand.

The downside has been increased litter and some damage to sites. While the vast majority of our visitors take good care and leave as they find, it would seem that there will always be an element with little regard for their local environment or responsibility for their actions.

Luckily we also have a great network of volunteers who have been busy on litter picks, planting, carrying out wildlife surveys and by walking sites regularly and reporting back any issues. As always, we’re very grateful to them all.

We were delighted to see nature thriving, especially during the initial lockdown, with an otter spotted along the River Bann and wildflowers all along the Coast Road and a rare sighting of a Holly Blue butterfly. Such wildlife sightings shouldn’t be unusual but unfortunately they are becoming more so.

We plan to significantly reduce our herbicide usage over the next few years for the benefit of both people and wildlife, and hope the public will accept that some areas will look a little wilder and learn from the emergence of wildlife when nature is given more of a chance to thrive.

We’ve also partnered with the Woodland Trust to plant 58,000 trees over the next five years, one for each household in the Borough. We planted just over 17,000 trees last winter and will do similar, if not more this year.

Overall, we are hopeful that people now realise the importance of nature and green space, not just during the pandemic, and will make a more concerted effort to do their bit for the environment and to support us doing the same.

With the current 4-week lockdown and continued concern, parks and open spaces continue to play a huge part in both physical and mental health and wellbeing, providing safe places for play, exercise and socialising – at a distance of course!“