“GETTING READY FOR THE SUMMER” – HOW COUNCILS CAN NAVIGATE THE COMPLEX WORLD OF GREEN SPACES
Despite further warnings about the return of ‘the Beast from the East’, winter is officially over. Now is the time infrastructure asset managers from councils across the UK start springing into action and preparing for summer.
One of their primary focus areas is on green spaces. Councils are preparing for the influx of families into play park and amenity grassed areas while municipal golf courses and bowling greens will begin to be used in earnest again. However, managing these green spaces efficiently remains a complex challenge.
Many councils concentrate on trying to capture and then digitise all their green spaces, including parks, public gardens, commons and recreation grounds, in geographic information systems (GIS). That’s fine as far as it goes but it is not sufficient in itself. A GIS is not an operational system, and where councils try to rely on these alone for their green spaces management, they typically end up with a complex and poorly-integrated web of spreadsheets and manual approaches. Typically, there is a disconnect between what is mapped in GIS and what is happening on the ground with operational service delivery.
That’s one element of the complexity councils face as they set about finding ways to manage their green spaces. What makes it more complicated is that they cannot easily put in place set frequencies for work to be done. Much of the work is seasonal, with plants and grass growing faster and needing to be pruned back or cut, the focus on spring work is a practical one. However, plans also often need to be changed at short notice because of the weather. That can be difficult if the approach the council takes is based purely on spreadsheets and retained staff knowledge because any change to the schedule will have a knock-on effect on workforce planning and future schemes of work.
Added to this, there needs to be a different kind of approach and level of effort delivered at each location – inclines, features, extents and types of work required will all influence how much time is needed at each location. Using a combination of GIS, spreadsheets and piecemeal manual approaches is simply not effective or efficient.
There is a growing recognition among councils that they need to instead employ an asset management approach that deals not just with the complexity of the seasonality and asset types but also the data hierarchy that exists for managing ‘green infrastructure’. Systems are now available which allow local authorities to manage this kind of nested level of complexity and data. They have the capability to enable councils to manage the inevitable variations in the asset classes they are dealing with and the associated operational detail. The type of work that is required within one park is complex and likely to be different from another park only a few miles away. The best software in this area, such as our asset management platform Alloy, has the capability to differentiate and manage these distinctions and complexity.
Critically, this kind of software also allows councils to start to build some important connections. The way that street cleansing operations are managed could impact on the work needed within a specific green space and vice versa, whilst work in and access to a particular park could be affected by street works being undertaken by the council, contractors or utility companies.
Ultimately, this kind of connected asset management approach needs to be focused around helping councils see the big picture of the work they are doing. Historically, for example, they may have captured all the work done on trees in one silo, and the work done on children’s play areas in another, both distinct and separate from the wider green spaces data. With connected asset management software solutions, like Alloy, all of that can be joined together, effectively breaking down the silos within the green spaces arena. Beyond that, the approach and the software used to support it, can also bring a greater connectivity across the wider environmental services area. Street cleansing services have an impact on green spaces, for example the emptying of bins or clearing paths of litter will inevitably affect the management of our green spaces.
The approach can also bring a sense of greater connectivity between the council and the public. It is a powerful tool in the council’s armoury to show residents when work has been done or is planned to maintain green spaces, prune trees or inspect play equipment. Equally, enabling the public to be able to report specific service requests against the unique assets that the council is responsible for, rather than trying to describe the issue in free form text has a number of advantages in improving the efficiency of council processes and operations.
Connected asset management can also deliver enhanced connectivity across the council workforce by increasing the prevalence of mobile working. Historically, usage of mobile devices within the green spaces arena has been extremely limited but local authorities are increasingly seeing the benefits of having an instant connection between the back office and the workforce out in the field. Managers can track progress more easily and workers can report back when tasks have been completed or report on other jobs that may need to be picked up by other members of the team.
Local authorities are also aware that the management of green spaces is not a statutory service and this has meant a growing interest and work to assign a value to our green spaces to help communicate the benefit they provide to the community.
With that in mind, they can use footfall sensors to measure the numbers visiting parks every day and therefore how well used they are in general and at various times of the day. That information enables councils to not only help quantify the value that green spaces play within society, but to also find answers to key questions such as: have we got the right number of litter bins installed; are we cutting back our trees regularly; and do we have the right resources to ensure the park is maintained to the highest possible standards?
The information that connected asset management provides can also be used to help inform more strategic decision-making, helping councils decide what the impact will be if they change the way they operate in this area – cutting grass at different intervals, or planting more trees, for example. It can also help communicate the impact of these decisions to the wider community and public, further highlighting the value that our green spaces provide.