“After the pandemic we don’t want parks to slip back and be the preserve of dog walkers and retired people, we want them for everybody,” said Miriam Ashwell, who helps care for Caledonian Park.
She is the chair of the Caledonian Park Friends Group and got involved a few years ago to improve her health, so she is passionate about the benefits of open spaces.
The much loved Cally Park has been transformed from a spot which “50 years ago was burnt out bikes and mopeds”.
Today it boasts gardening groups, a knit and natter gathering, a centre for meetings and exhibitions, a cafe and an orchard with a central clock tower that was once a cattle market.
The park also boasts spectacular views of London.
It’s one of a network of spaces featured in Islington and Camden councils’ joint parks for health strategy, designed to boost people’s wellbeing and encourage more frequent use of parks that are free for everyone.
The councils used £600,000 in funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, National Trust and Greater London Authority to draw up the strategy.
It saw them join forces with 36 park user groups, 53 voluntary organisations and nine GP practices which prescribe activities to boost patients’ health.
Ashwell said: “It’s so vital that the council is working with user groups and it builds trust.”
Nurullah Turan, the Islington councillor in charge of health and social care said: “Three out of five Islington residents do not have access to outside space at home so it’s very important to have access to green spaces.
“It’s also important because of the inequality that we are facing. We are the most densely populated borough.”
Islington also has high rates of poverty among children and the elderly.
Cllr Turan said: “Our parks are free to use. Nobody has to think twice, ‘Can I go there?'”
Barry Emmerson, Islington’s head of parks said: “We wanted to create spaces for the community that maximise places for everyone.”
They worked with community groups such as the Jannaty Women’s Social Society and the Third Age Project to get people out and about.
They also asked people which barriers might stop them enjoying parks, such as concerns over dogs, and made sure people know there are dog-free spaces.
The project has seen an increase in GP referrals for activities such as walking, gardening and food-growing, and to projects that get different generations together at venues including Gillespie Park.
Cerdic Hall, primary care nurse consultant and recovery lead at Camden and Islington mental health trust, explained the value of getting outdoors.
“We are really dealing with the Covid shellshock and people are being left with a sense of isolation and the inequalities have been writ large,” he said.
“Green spaces are a way for us to gather ourselves and tune into ourselves and what our needs are.”
Vicky Lee set herself a project while on her winter walks during the pandemic.
She looked for the beauty in Caledonian Park and photographed it. The result is an exhibition at the park’s centre and a request to photograph all the trees there.
She said: “The second winter of the pandemic was hard for me. I became more aware I was being slowed down. It was a project to make myself come out and walk.
“I was aware of the seasons as they changed and I photographed the tower reflected in a puddle, a bee on spring crocuses and the sunlight just before the solstice in the trees.
“I was looking for joy – for what made me happy.”