Sarah Royal is the first people's tsar for Birmingham's open spaces. She talks to Jo Ind.
The difference between a park that is loved and a park that is not is the difference between reduced crime, children who are more active, rising house prices and a longer life for those who live nearby.
When a park or an open space has a group of friends who make it their business to care for their patch of green, all sorts of good things start to happen. "It makes a huge amount of difference. It puts that park on the map," says Sarah Royal, who is the first community open spaces development officer for Birmingham.
"There's a finite amount of maintenance money that gets spent on a park. If there's nobody interested in it, or no one to love it, then just the basic stuff will happen.
"If there's a 'friends of' group keeping an eye on their park, they get onto the council if it's not being properly maintained. They look at what improvements they can make, they apply for extra funding for things like play equipment and benches. They bring in things like a wildflower meadow or sensory planting.
"As the park will be being used more, a 'friends of' group will look at running little events there. The park will look and feel more loved which will attract more people to use it.
"When a park is used by local people, it lifts the whole area. An unloved park attracts antisocial behaviour, so people don't go there because they develop a fear of crime.
"A loved park does not attract crime because there are so many people there. Research has shown that people's health and longevity is improved just through living by a well maintained open space."
Sarah, aged 43, does not have to talk for long to reveal she is passionate about the open spaces of the city. She has recently been made the first paid officer of the Birmingham Open Spaces Forum, which was set up four years ago to bring together "friends of" parks and open spaces groups in a network.
Before the forum was established by Emma Woolf, who is chairman, the community groups were working in isolation. Now the network has 147 groups as members, ranging from big nature reserves and cemeteries to pocket parks, allotments and playing fields.
This year, for the first time, the forum received funding from the EsmÈe Fairbairn Foundation, which aims to improve the quality of life throughout the UK through education and learning and the natural environment, to employ a part-time development officer for two years.
"I was a voluntary member of the forum before," says Sarah. "The vision of having a paid officer was to the Birmingham Open Spaces up to that next step. There's a limit to what everybody can do in their spare time.
"We've come a long way in our four years. We've built up a really good working partnership between the groups. Our message is that it's good to have fun in parks but it's never good to do it in isolation. When you get together as a community voice for Birmingham's open spaces everybody benefits.
"We can send out useful information about funding, we can advise them on how to set up a 'friends of' group, we can put groups with similar challenges in touch with each other."
A common challenge is where a loved open space is under threat from development, such as the former playing fields in West Hill Close, Selly Oak which have been earmarked for a 70- home development. The Friends of West Hill Playing Fields have campaigned for the site to be awarded village green status, which would protect it.
"They have gone a long way down the line with that process," says Sarah, "and they've developed a lot of knowledge along the way. We're looking at putting together a pack of what legal information you need, what forms you need to get and so on, so that if other sites are under threat, all that information is there."
Lack of funding is another perennial problem for "friends of" groups, so at every annual general meeting, the forum has speakers giving advice on new funding streams.
"We don't always have the specialised knowledge," says Sarah, "but we are in touch with organisations like the Wildlife Trust so we can point people to those who can answer their questions if we can't."
One of the most positive things the forum has done is getting the park keepers on board to encourage the 'friends of' groups to work with the Birmingham City Council employees.
"Our relationship with the city council has really changed. It's brilliant," says Sarah. "In the past, 'friends of' groups were seen as a thorn in the council's side. They were simply the people who complained.
"But as we've built up this forum, we've got more communication so the 'friends of' groups understand how the council works and the council sees how important the 'friends of' groups are.
"For example, we are able to explain the mowing regimes to the 'friends of' groups. We can say that patch of grass has not been mown because the park manager is waiting for the bulbs to die back. The group can be very quick to complain that something hasn't been mown. We're able to help them get a better understanding of where the council is coming from.
"The park manager is able to understand that the 'friends of' group really cares about the park and is bringing the community into it. Above all, the 'friends of' groups and the park managers have got to know each other and the whole community has taken as step forward as a result.
"Before it was an 'us and them' kind of thing. Now you go to a meeting and the park managers and the 'friends of' groups are saying hello and chatting because they know each other. It's taken a lot of work. It hasn't happened over night, but we're getting there."
As a sign of just how far relationships between the community and the coun- cil has come, last year Sarah and Emma were invited to be part of the council's tender process to appoint new contractors for grounds maintenance.
"Those tenders will be in place for the next ten years, so it's a significant thing," says Sarah. "We were invited to bring the community voice into the process, to represent what the community want to see in their parks.
"We wanted the contractors who come on board to understand from day one, they are working in partnership with the community, not just cutting the grass and disappearing. It was a real step forward." Sarah has evidently caught the working hand-in-hand bug and is developing good relationships in all sorts of arenas. The forum is now working with primary health care trusts to enable them to understand the importance of local parks.
"We would like doctors to prescribe walking around the park," says Sarah. "We're looking at initiatives like park keepers having pedometers on site to help with this."
Sarah and Emma have also attended the first Park Keepers' Forum.
"Before, the park keepers used to work very much in isolation. Now a forum has been set up by Lee Southall, the park manager for Perry Barr. He's the lead to get the Park Keepers' forum up and running and we're bringing the community element into it. There are some parks that have park keepers but don't have 'friends of' groups. We're helping with setting ones up."
And if that wasn't enough networking for a part-time employee, Sarah is going national. She has been working with the parks charity GreenSpace to set up a national open spaces forum linking up the forums all over the country.
"We've had two meetings so far this year," says Sarah. "Our aim is to get a national voice looking at the bigger issues. We want to push parks up the political agenda.
"I know the importance the park gives to a local area. It needs people just to open their eyes and explore what is in their local green space. It's amazing what's there."