What are friends for?

Roger Jones (Friends of West Ham Park) and Dave Morris (London Friends of Green Spaces Network) illustrate the transformative impact on London’s parks of the volunteer Friends who champion them.
Dr Fothergill’s garden in West Ham Park (Friends of West Ham Park)

Throughout London, our much loved and greatly valued green spaces need people to help promote, animate, enhance and protect them. In the past 20 years a vibrant ‘Friends’ movement of parks users has mushroomed, and is still expanding: there are now about 700 independent local groups in the capital, and around 7,000 across the UK.

Whilst every site, and indeed every group, is unique and has its own distinct character, the activities that Friends carry out tend to be similar. These may include: running volunteer sessions including litter picking and helping with some planting and maintenance; organising community activities and events of all kinds; generating publicity, spreading news and building membership through notice-boards, literature and social media; liaising with staff and managers regarding maintenance and repairs: linking up with local stakeholders such as sports teams, adjacent schools, a site café, nearby residents associations, and so on; discussing, proposing and sometimes fundraising for projects to improve a site; and helping develop a vision for its future.

The impact of an active Friends group can be transformative, as can be seen in the case of West Ham Park in Newham. The park is owned and managed by the City of London Corporation (CoL) following purchase of the land in 1874 from the Gurney family, who still have four seats on the management committee. It covers 77 acres (31 hectares). The Green Flag inspection in 2006 noted that there was no Friends group, and CoL called a public meeting to establish the Friends of West Ham Park; a member of the park management team attends Friends meetings, and the group works closely with the management team, thereby maximising its impact.

Newham has the least green space per capita in London; the Friends aim to encourage the local community to make the most of this precious resource in this densely populated, deprived borough, and to raise awareness of nature. The group holds public events such as guided birdwatching, bat-watching and stargazing, runs a community vegetable garden, and leads regular health walks. The annual ‘Biggest Leaf Pile’ event is enormously popular – especially the part when all the children (and some adults) jump in the pile. This kind of free play is not usually available to children living in high density housing; these events could not take place without volunteer planning and delivery.

Moreover, the park includes an historic seven-acre garden which was owned by Dr John Fothergill, a Quaker physician and plant collector, in the 18th Century. The garden was regarded by Sir Joseph Banks as “second only to Kew”. Dr Fothergill sponsored exploration, including the journeys of Captain Cook, in return for plant specimens for his collection; he had a large area of glasshouses for plant from warmer climes, and was one of the first in England to successfully grow large tea bush (Camellia sinensis). He employed the best artists of the day to record and illustrate his collection, including Ann Lee and George Ehret.

The Friends wanted to raise awareness of this unique history and to highlight the park’s beautiful ornamental garden, and so two temporary exhibitions were held in 2018 and 2019, to showcase historical information and to introduce the history of botanical illustration in relation to the works commissioned by Dr Fothergill. These illustrations, incidentally, were sold, after his death, to Catherine the Great of Russia, and are not currently on display – the Friends have a long term aim to trace them, somewhere in the archives of the Kornarov Institute in St Petersburg.

The temporary exhibitions received a great deal of interest, as a result of which the group installed a permanent exhibition in the historic rose garden, featuring reproductions of work by artists known to have worked for Dr Fothergill. The Friends obtained grants and did all the research for the exhibition, including obtaining permissions to use the historic images and making contact with the Kornarov; luckily the group boasts a Russian speaker, as well as a very knowledgeable researcher.

The partnership between the Friends group and the park management staff, including park keepers and gardeners, has made this addition to the garden possible. It is being enjoyed by many visitors, and is already being used by local schools to tie in with subjects on the National Curriculum.

Of course the size and scope of many sites, and consequently of their Friends groups, are on a much smaller scale ~ but all the groups contribute to public engagement, involvement and empowerment. Drawn from the local population, and specifically from park users, Friends groups give the public a real say about the present and future of our vital green oases in the urban fabric. Of course, those involved also have fun together and help foster some much-needed community spirit.

Friends groups increasingly share good practice and work together through their own local Forums in many boroughs, and throughout London via the London Friends of Green Spaces Network (LFGN). The LFGN itself works closely with the London Gardens Trust and with other green space bodies, including the new Go Parks London map, and campaign to promote all of London’s public green spaces.

Does your local space need extra care and attention? If it does, why not join an existing Friends group or set one up if there isn’t one yet. Every space needs lots of

The authors wish to thank the London Friends of Green Spaces Network (http://www.lfgn.org.uk) and Parks Community UK (https://www.parkscommunity.org.uk) for their information and advice.