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Green Flag status – what does it mean for our city and county’s parks?

Following the news that some of Derby and Derbyshire’s parks have received Green Flag awards, Paul Elliott, Professor of modern history, who has researched the history of public parks and green spaces, explores what this means for the city and county.

By Professor Paul Elliott - 26 October 2021

Having been reminded of the profound benefits of green spaces during the Covid-19 lockdowns and as we approach the COP26 intergovernmental climate conference in Glasgow, the fact that some of Derby and Derbyshire’s public parks and green spaces have been honoured with Green Flag status is a cause for celebration and reflection.

What are the Green Flag Awards?

Green Flag Awards were introduced by the John Major government in 1996 to highlight standards of good management and best practice amongst green places. The awards were originally administered by the Civic Trust and are now managed by Tidy Britain Group (originally Keep Britain Tidy) and partner organisations in Britain and abroad under licence from what is now called the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

To receive the award, green spaces are assessed by judges on the degree to which they provide a public welcome, how healthy, safe, and secure they are, as well as how well they are managed and maintained. The degree of community engagement that they engender is another aspect measured, as is the extent to which they promote and celebrate their history and heritage. The range of green spaces honoured by these awards is striking and includes everything from nature reserves and allotments to cemeteries and even some shopping centres.

Derby and Derbyshire Parks Winning a Green Flag Award

Of the 2,127 parks and green spaces awarded this year nationally, the public parks that have been recognised in Derby are the Arboretum and those at Alvaston, Chaddesden, Darley, Sunnydale and Markeaton. The Derby Arboretum is one of eight green heritage sites in the East Midlands region to be recognised, as well as a range of parks across Derbyshire including Belper River Gardens and Belper Cemetery (managed by Amber Valley District Council), Queen’s Park and Eastwood Park in Chesterfield,  and Maurice Lea Memorial Park in Church Gresley plus Swadlincote Woodlands, both managed by South Derbyshire District Council.

During the last 18 months through the Covid-19 lockdowns, our parks and green spaces have played a vital role in helping people to relax, exercise, re-charge their batteries and meet friends and family safely. In fact, at one point there was not much else we could do apart from essential food shopping. The news that some of Derby’s parks have received a Green Flag Award underlines how valuable the work of parks staff has been, especially given the constraints of local government funding and small number of parks staff compared with previous decades. The achievement also highlights the valuable contribution of ‘Friends of Parks’ groups and other community and volunteer bodies and their supporters, without whom modern parks would barely be able to function.

fountain at Derby Arboretum

Derby Arboretum

The fact that the Derby Arboretum retained Green Heritage Site Accreditation, supported by Historic England, underscores the significance of the park’s historic features and how successfully these have been managed by the City Council’s parks department, in partnership with the Friends of the Derby Arboretum group and local community. Opened in 1840, it was designed by the Scottish landscape gardener John Claudius Loudon in partnership with the donor, industrialist Joseph Strutt. The original park featured a labelled collection of trees and shrubs from around the world as a kind of specialist botanical garden intended to provide rational recreation and botanical education for the town’s urban population. Landscaped with what appear to be curious hillocks following Loudon’s gardenesque style, the Derby Arboretum was one of the most influential Victorian parks and had a significant impact upon greenspace provision and design across Britain and North America.

Derby Arboretum proved to be so successful and popular that a large extension had to be immediately obtained for sports, festivals, and other activities. However, it was not until 1882 that the Arboretum was fully acquired and opened by the town council as a fully free and accessible public place of recreation – Derby was relatively sluggish in acquiring additional parks compared to many other Victorian towns.

Despite the opening of the seven-acre Bass Recreation Ground in 1866, donated by the Burton Brewer and Derby MP Michael Thomas Bass (1799-1884) – later unfortunately severed from the urban centre by subsequent road development – and a major public campaign for Strutt’s Park to be secured from property developers as a public green space, there were complaints about the slow pace of development in Derby compared to London, Leicester, Sheffield and other towns and cities.

It was not until Darley (1931), Markeaton (1931) and later Allestree Park (c1950) were acquired that Derby secured these green spaces as public parks, although other public grounds were lost such as Boden’s Pleasance on Bold Lane (a children’s playground).

The introduction of competitive tendering, strains upon local authority finances and reductions in the size and resources of parks departments nationally resulted in a decline in some parks during the 1970s and 1980s. The Derby Arboretum, for instance, began to attract newspaper headlines for all the wrong reasons through vandalism and crime, and local groups campaigned for restoration and improvements. Led by Peter Benham, the Parks and Amenities Manager of Derby City Council, and informed by a historical appraisal undertaken by Glenn Anderson Associates in 1996 and community campaigners, a restoration plan for the Arboretum was prepared and a £5.5m Lottery Heritage grant enabled restoration and re-planting to occur from 2002-2005.

Beauty of green spaces

Besides the public parks, it is significant how many other kinds of green space across Derbyshire have received an award, and this is a testimony to the many individuals and groups who have worked together to secure this status. The contribution made by volunteers and local people to the management of specific green spaces has also been recognised, with the awarding of Community Green Flags to eight gardens, allotments, open spaces and nature reserves. In addition to the larger public parks, the range of green spaces recognised in this category demonstrates the ecological significance of such places as islands of biodiversity, providing, as the Victorians often said, ‘green lungs’, and helping to foster greater ecological resilience in the face of the looming climate emergency.      

Cause for celebration

The Green Flag Awards received for Derbyshire’s parks is something to be celebrated. Likewise, the many other green spaces honoured shows how valuable the work of many different organisations and groups has been. The Awards, including Green Heritage Site Accreditation, are also a testimony to generations of Derby and Derbyshire parks users and enthusiasts, green campaigners, parks department workers, local government officials, civic-minded donors and benefactors and many others now often forgotten, such as the unemployed labourers who helped dig an enlarged Markeaton Park lake in the wake of the Great Depression.       

The Green Flag awards received by Derby and Derbyshire green spaces are a wonderful achievement which can be built on in future years, but like the history of campaigning for – and managing - public parks locally, they demonstrate that we can never take them for granted. They serve as a reminder that each generation needs to fight to preserve the quality, ecological richness and adaptability of these precious places in the face of threats such as those arising from neglect, social inequality, strains in local government funding, commercial pressures on space, pollution, invasive species and climate change. 

About the author

Paul Elliott

Professor Paul Elliott
Professor of Modern History

Paul is a Professor of Modern History and Research Lead for the Humanities.

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