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What does your local park mean to you? Measuring the SROI of urban green spaces

27 Aug 2019, by Amy Sarcevic

High density urban development, coupled with rapid population growth, is creating a significant demand for Australia’s public green spaces, with parks, playing fields and nature reserves increasingly being relied upon as a back yard for high-rise residents and office workers.

Through our own experience of using these spaces, many of us instinctively understand their importance  in terms of supporting psychological restoration, social activity, health and wellbeing.

But how much specific value do they generate per each dollar spent; and precisely how much should we be investing into their development and regeneration, given the current climate of stretched infrastructure spending?

In answering these questions, the City of Parramatta Council recently engaged consultants to perform a Social Return on Investment (SROI) analysis on its public green spaces.

“Social value can often be a difficult thing to quantify, particularly when it relies on anecdotal evidence”, said Project Officer, Katie Wearne, ahead of the Public Space Design Forum. “We wanted to develop a robust evidence base to help us understand and ‘tell the story’ to our stakeholders about why preserving these assets is really important for the community; and felt an SROI analysis was the strongest way to achieve this”.

In doing so, the Council went out into the field, quite literally, and carried out more than 800 surveys. “It was unfeasible for us to do this in every site, so we just chose five of the area’s most ‘representative’ parks and sports grounds”, said Katie. “We conducted the surveys on game days, mornings and at night time to get a good spread and insight into the value the parks were bringing to all of its users”.

“One of the key questions we asked was “What would you do if this park didn’t exist?”. We were really surprised by the level of emotivity from survey respondents. Some participants said they would be “devastated” if the parks didn’t exist. For many local residents these spaces play an integral part in their everyday lives.

“One respondent from China used to have to travel for half an hour on the subway to access open space in her home town. Now her daughter attends a public school located right next to Epping Park in Sydney. Through having the park in such close proximity, she is now able to use it every day and has been inspired to take up running. Another respondent, who has recently made the move to Australia from India, found that going to his local sports grounds enabled him to develop a social network and learn a lot about Australian culture”.

After gathering the qualitative data, the Council identified the main areas of potential value, for example, fitness benefits, psychological benefits, children’s entertainment, increased custom to local businesses, etcetera. They then assigned a financial value to each, using a commercial proxy, for example, gym membership, play group fees, therapy costs. The Council was keen not to overstate the value and so, whenever applicable, attributed less value to benefits that could be derived for free elsewhere in reasonable proximity, such as the local beach or library.

In doing this, they were able to identify how much social and economic value in dollar terms the green spaces generated, per each dollar spent.

Katie says these results will be able to both attract investment and better guide investment decisions going forward. “Historically, green spaces have been looked upon as a ‘nice-to-have’. Our analysis indicates that they are a ‘must-have’ feature of the urban landscape. And thankfully with this evidence base we can demonstrate this to stakeholders and the wider community”.

Presenting at Informa’s Public Space Design Forum– 22 November 2019 in Sydney – Katie Wearne will talk more about the SROI process and reveal the results of the analysis.

Learn more and register here.

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