Public parks make places nicer to live in, enable people to meet up without having to buy anything, and give those who live in urban locations some access to nature. Their trees help with local cooling and air quality, and they provide habitats for various creatures. Their role and value has increased further over the pandemic as alternative meeting places and travel were banned during lockdowns. Is it possible to put an economic value on these much-loved amenities - and why would we want to do so?
The Bennett Institute has previously looked at valuing green spaces for the straightforward reason that if this is not attempted, they are not factored into policy decisions: the implicit value is put at zero. Any specific numerical figure might be highly uncertain, but the economic value through the contribution of parks to health, wellbeing and natural capital is certainly higher than zero. The Wealth Economy report noted that proximity to green space adds an estimated cumulative £78 billion to the value of UK homes, and their cooling properties lead to higher productivity and lower air conditioning costs, which was conservatively estimated to be worth £248 million in 2017 alone.
Public parks, as distinct from open green spaces, also contribute to an area’s social infrastructure, which brings a whole host of benefits, as described in the Bennett Institute’s recent Townscapes report. The availability of social spaces is associated with higher levels of both physical and mental health, and giving people a place to meet and mix can improve community resilience and sense of local identity.
The value of public parks is difficult to measure, since they are free at the point of use. This means there are no prices that can be used to measure how much people would pay for a park, a standard proxy for economic value. This makes it hard for a local council to estimate how much a park can contribute to the local economy through higher house prices, better health, and a stronger community.
A new study by Coyle and Nguyen has attempted to fill this gap in knowledge. Using YouGov’s nationally representative online panel, they surveyed the UK population three times, in February 2020, May 2020 and February 2021. They considered a number of goods that are ‘free’ at the point of use and asked survey participants what was the smallest amount of money they would need to be paid to go without it for 12 months. The results of this survey, illustrated below, show what proportion of people use parks in each region of the UK and what the average value placed on them is by the people who use them.
These results show that both usage rates of parks and the value of parks to those who use them unsurprisingly increased between February 2020 and February 2021. Overall, an extra 3% of the British public said they used public parks in 2021 compared with before the first lockdown, and the people who used the parks said they would have to be paid an extra £400 in February 2021 relative to February 2020 (a 14.5% increase) to go without them.
Equally unsurprisingly, people in London, the UK’s most built-up region, used parks the most and valued them the highest for all periods. Other results reflect known inequalities in access to green space between regions. For example, there are clusters of ‘green towns’ in parts of the North West where usage rates and valuations increased substantially, whilst there are few towns with green spaces in the Midlands, where usage rates and valuations remained low relative to the national average.
There are limitations to this methodology for valuing parks, as there are for all methods for valuing free goods. However, it reveals how much habits have changed over the pandemic, with people being more nervous of crowded indoor areas, while government advice is to continue to meet outside for at least the next winter. This implies that usage rates and valuations of parks will be likely to stay higher than pre-pandemic levels for at least the near future.
These results provide a useful starting point for policymakers in understanding the value of a public good that can easily be overlooked at times of budget cutbacks. In particular, do local budgets reflect that over 80% of people use parks, and state that they would need to be paid over £2,500 a year to give them up? Have budgets changed to take account of the increased usage rates and value of parks to locals during the pandemic? The fact that it is so challenging to measure the value of public parks in conventional monetary terms certainly does not mean that they are not valuable. On the contrary, this evidence indicates how much the public do value these green spaces.
 More detail in the 2019 ONS environmental accounts
 In economics, this is known as the “Willingness to Accept” (WTA).
 People were asked in bands, this is the average of the lowest bound of the band. So if someone said they would need to be paid between £101 and £200, the WTA value is taken as £101.