ALL the people, so many people, and they all go hand-in-hand… Yet this week we were warned that “park life” in Scotland is experiencing the strains of austerity.

The State of the UK’s Public Parks 2016 report has reported that half of Scotland’s park managers predict a decline in the quality of their parks over the next three years. Fifty-nine per cent of Scottish Councils have had to cut park funds by between 10 and 20 percent.

The advocates of park life have some excellent lines. Julie Proctor of Greenspace Scotland calls parks our “natural health service, our children’s outdoor classrooms, our cities’ green lungs”. Hear hear.

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But I was somewhat amazed to discover that councils have no legal or statutory responsibility to provide public parks. Given the myriad pressures on their budgets, nothing exists – other than tradition, research, activism and public demand – to stop local authorities’ incursions to develop on parklands.

As pressures on house-building and council deficits rise, do we really need to make the case for the public park again? I’m more than happy to roll my sleeves up (though “taps aff” would be, of course, environmentally dependent).

As both a Glaswegian and a Londoner, I couldn’t cope with either city if it wasn’t for their public parks.

For me these cities are mostly about enterprise, striving, sometimes thriving, sometimes failing. You cut about the street grid or the transport system, bag bulging with potential projects. Your sightline is filled with windows, company logos, gleaming towers of power. Your resources (of all kinds) are depleted by the costs of city hustling, even as you try to accumulate those resources.

And then – whether fetching up by chance between one meet and another, or on a dedicated evening or weekend stroll – you come upon a decent public park. And it’s as if the lid has been taken off the box you’re living in, just for a few blessed hours.

Whether it’s Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow, or Hampstead Heath in London, the basic pleasures are the same. Look at these expanses of grass and avenues of trees; look at these unhurried walkways, leading to familiar old statues, fountains and monuments. The sheer freedom and generosity of it all!

The seats that don’t require a coffee purchase to be sat on. The vast, collective muffling of the noises of the city is replaced by the healing sounds of kids playing, dogs barking, friends laughing as they stroll or picnic. The swirling murmuration of birds above you. Maybe the smell of someone’s overly-interesting cigarette…

That mixture of freedom and grandeur we know from our public parks betrays their origins. They were mid-to-late 19th century initiatives, often started by industrialists, aimed at bringing “rational recreation” to the labouring classes – improving the health of both bodies and characters.

Kelvingrove Park is a classic example of this. Museum and university at one side, Sauchiehall Street and Park Circus at the other, and much well-planned activity in between.

The recent restoration of the Kelvingrove Bandstand has been a great artistic success. But note that it was first constructed to serve the massive international exhibitions that took place in the park at the turn of the 20th century.

So for all their sanity-inducing explosions of natural profusion, public parks have always had their functional uses. It’s salutary to note that probably the world’s most famous public park, Central Park in New York, was inspired by Frederick Law Olmsted’s visit to Merseyside’s Birkenhead Park in 1851.

Olmsted wanted to bring this “People’s Park” back to “democratic America”. I’ve been there several times, and it’s always struck me as more of an iron lung for the maximum city. The lawns and trees struggle to flourish, and it’s traversed by far too many traffic roads to give park-strollers a true sense of escape from the urban snarl.

In 2016, public parks are facing new challenges – requiring new justifications beyond botanic gardens and leaping fountains.

The boundaries are already being pushed. Organisations like Parkrun, or companies like British Military Fitness and personal trainers, are using parks to organise their 5K runs, or conduct their paid-for services. Depressingly, in some areas of the country, local authorities are beginning to ask these entities to pay for access to the park grounds.

It’s a somewhat perverse outcome of the massive interest in athletic fitness after both the 2012 London Olympics and the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Increased public enthusiasm inflicts wear-and-tear on these parks, compelling cash-strapped councillors to return them to their private roots. Admission to the first-ever “public” park, the Derby Arboretum in 1840, was only free on Wednesdays and Sundays.

BUT with the Fabian Society predicting that funding for parks will fall by 60 per cent by 2020, perhaps we should keep exploring the options.

We can take advice from the great urbanist Ken Worpole. Worpole was a key figure in making the case for parks as an element of “social renewal” in the mid-90s. Partly due to his influence (he initiated methods of measuring what matters in park activity) nearly £800m has been funnelled to park improvements from the Heritage Lottery Fund over the last 20 years – continuing even through the early years of the Coalition governments. Parks now get 2.5 billion visits a year across these islands.

But Worpole’s position now is that for parks to continue, they have to be at the centre of “regeneration” strategies for towns and cities. Rather than just a “service”, to be dutifully and conventionally “delivered”. Do you want to be a great place to live – thus attracting workers and their families? Then see a well-tended public park, with all its generous space and attractive heritage, as a keystone in your offer to the world.

Are parks also a basis on which citizenship could be revived? The “Friends Of Parks” movement that’s burgeoned in the last 20 years is now meeting the network power of crowdfunding.

A digital platform called MyParkScotland is raising hundreds of thousands of pounds overall for specific park projects, directly from Scots citizens. For example, the Friends of Glasgow Green are pitching for funds to “replace the old gymnasium with an outdoor gym”. (Outdoor gyms, incidentally, are one of the great new public park offers. Obviously cheaper than the usual futile January sign-up, they are deliberately placed next to kids’ playgrounds, hopefully “nudging” adults into exercise.)

Other clever ways of revitalising public parks – and dealing with cost pressures at the same time – is to explore permaculture. That can mean encouraging neatly tended greens to slip into flowering, buzzing meadows. The resultant diversity of flora and insect life can become an asset for educators and parents alike. And meadowlands, by definition, don’t require mechanised mowering.

As climate change shakes up our environment, there are also very persuasive “green infrastructure” arguments being made for public parks. They may well play a crucial role in maintaining the stability of local water flow. If they’re replaced by too much hard surfacing, towns and cities become vulnerable to flash floods, with all the attendant cost and distress that causes.

I’m up for any idea that can keep the public park at the centre of our urban or suburban concerns. We aren’t the masses of the 19th and 20th centuries, happy to be collectively “re-created” for the industrial grind. If we are to defend a generous commons that lifts your spirits and clears out your citified insides we’ll need lots of cool, new, persuasive ideas. But we should listen with open minds and hearts. Park life can be precisely what the good life looks like. And it’s literally round the corner.

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