Should parkrun events pay to use parks?

No!

Ok, so that was my answer but let me elaborate. 

In the last week or so, parkrun communities around the world have reacted with the same response to the fact that a parish council has insisted that parkrun pay £1 per participant at the Little Stoke parkrun event. The council cite several reasons for the charge including the wear and tear caused to the park and its car park and the complaints they have received from local residents. 

They also state that other organisations pay to use the park and that as parkrun is an organisation that has paid employees that it should do the same. 

Ok, so let’s break this down and make it a little more generic. 

There’s every likelihood that parkrunners cause wear and tear to a park and a car park. They likely do so in equal amounts to another park user including walkers, dog walkers, etc. parkrun event teams design courses to reduce the footprint of their events and try to ensure that wear and tear is kept to a minimum. 

With some events having several hundred participants, there is likely to be an impact from 8:45am until 9:45am on a Saturday morning on a park’s infrastructure but I’d suggest that the number of parkrunners in a park per week is a small percentage of its overall visitor population in that time period.  
In my experience, parkrun event teams are very concerned about their venues and work closely with the park management teams to ensure that any issues that arise are resolved quickly. 

This is certainly the case with all of the local events in southern Hampshire. An example is my home event, Eastleigh parkrun, who recently cancelled for several weeks to allow the venue, Fleming Park, to recover after a lot of wet weather. The council, who I’d spoken to, had said that they were happy with the event continuing during the period but the event team chose to make the decision to not make the ground conditions worse that they were. The event also regularly makes small adaptions to their course to ensure that there is no lasting damage to the venue caused by the event. 

Another example is Southampton parkrun. Again, the event team have a great relationship with the local council and work with them to ensure the event has a negligible impact on the venue, Southampton Common. The event has several course variations and moves to accommodate other events at the park including festivals, fairs and the like. In many cases, these other events cause far more lasting damage that several hundred parkrunners on a Sarurday morning. 

With regards to car parking, at some venues, this is clearly an issue and parkrunners and their events have to take responsibility for reducing this impact. With a growing number of venues, the likelihood of being in the catchment area of a parkrun increases and the need to take a car lessens. 

Many parkrun venues charge for parking and thereby generate revenue from parkrunners. This is certainly the case at two local event; Winchester parkrun and Netley Abbey parkrun. Other local events offer free parking. 

The timings of parkrun events means that the impact on parking is minimised as typically the footfall in local parks is quite low on a Saturday morning than, say, the afternoon. 

parkrunners can help though by:

  • parking considerately
  • car sharing or finding alternate means of getting to an event
  • parking outside or a distance away from the venue

In reality, taking the car to a parkrun is often the easy choice and certainly one I used to regularly take. However, more often than not, I now cycle the 4 or so miles to any of my local events. 

Another issue cited is that large (or small) participation parkrun events take over parks making it difficult for other venue users to make the most of the park. This certainly can be true especially on large participation events, small parks or parks where the course takes in a large percentage of the park’s paths. This isn’t always the case though and parkrun event teams factor in the physical footprint of the event in its course design. They also have to and do consider how growth could impact that footprint. 

There are certainly issues with large participation events where parkrunners congregate prior to the start in one area and this is certainly the case at Southampton parkrun with 800+ runners. However, this only lasts for 10 minutes prior to the start. There is also a compromise that needs to be made at these events where the parkrunners are likely to create less wear and tear on a path than they would on a grass verge. 

parkrunners and event teams can minimise the impact by:

  • designing courses where the start is away from the main thoroughfare of the venue
  • act considerately to other park users and leave a physical path for cyclists and walkers

There have been suggestions that because others pay to use parks that parkruns should to. Many of the organisations that are charged make money from their participants or restrict who can participate. parkrun does neither. Some examples of other venue users could include BMF who charge 40 quid or more a month or a local soccer team who only allow the better players to take part.  parkrun is, and always will be, free to participate in parkrun events and they are available to anyone. 

This brings me onto the fact that Little Stoke Parish Council believe that parkrun should pay a fee per participant per week as parkrun is an organisation with directors and employees. 

The latter is certainly the case. parkrun in the UK has a board and about a dozen employees. 

Even with events being run by volunteers, there is much to do to support those teams and ensure growth of parkrun events across the UK and globally. parkrun volunteers aren’t paid. The Event Directors, Run Directors and Ambassadors all fulfil their role for free as do the core volunteer teams and ocaassional volunteers. The Directors are not company directors. However, parkrun events wouldn’t be what they are without the centralised function provided by the organisation that supports event teams. 

These functions include (but not limited to):

  • event activation and growth management
  • IT provision 
  • partner management – more on this shortly
  • marketing and communications
  • financial/accountancy
  • HR
  • event support – providing support to country and event teams
  • runner support – answering questions raised by the running and volunteer community members

Let me add some meat to these bones. 

In order to make a positive impact on the health and fitness of the nation and globally, parkrun has to grow. In order to do so, local volunteers need support to activate events. This has to be centralised and with several new events starting each weekend and with the issues both new and existing events encounter is a full time job for more than 1 person. 

As parkrunners, we need to register. We complete a parkrun and expect our results emails and SMS messages to be delivered within 60 minutes of the event finishing, we want to go to the event’s website to check out our results and the results of our running adversaries. We expect a weekly newsletter email. All of this and more relies on IT. We want to be able to claim a milestone t-shirt. This includes maintenance of the extensive IT infrastructure that has to support big spikes in usage on a Saturday morning, development of new features and improvements to existing features. This requires resource (this was an in-house function although in recent months, some of the technology function has started to be outsourced and that clearly has an associated cost). 

The simple fact is that parkrun can’t offer free runs for free. There is a considerable cost to providing the infrastructure and support needed by local teams to deliver a common experience across many hundreds of events each weekend globally. Part of this cost is covered by an event set up charge and this is paid for normally 50:50 between local councils and parkrun. This charge helps cover the cost of the infrastructure as well as:

  • Equipment
  • Training

parkrun requires funding or other forms of support from external sources; sponsors, supporters and partners as well as from the retail sales of parkrun branded clothing and a small cut from the barcode tags and wristbands. 

In the UK, the main sponsors and supporters include Fitbit, Intersport, Alzheimer’s Research UK, Wiggle and Tribesports. 

These are all big names and the relationships need managing professionally. In addition, new partner relationships need to be found occasionally and, on rarely, relationships ended properly. Again, this is a full-time role for more than one person and as more partners come on board is likely to require additional resource. 

parkrun communicates to the outside world via email, social media and other forms of communication. There are partner offers to share, promotional emails to deliver, weekly newsletters to write and publish. In addition, media coverage of parkrun is increasing and needs to be managed. Marketing and communication of the parkrun message is clearly key to growth and currently requires 1-2 full time staff. 

As an organisation, parkrun has income and outgoings that need to be managed properly. It has responsibilities to deliver accounts to the authorities and have financial management competence when dealing with partners and other stakeholders. Clearly, this requires professional, paid resource. 

Both events and parkrunners need support. Although largely supported by local parkrun Ambassadors, new event teams need support with activating their events, having their event websites created and set up, etc etc. Also, parkrun receive 1000s of questions each week and these need to be answered. In addition, the support resources for both parkrunners and event teams need managing. This is the role of a couple of full-time members of the organisation. 

parkrun’s UK team also provides considerable support to the country teams across the globe and are exploring and supporting the growth of parkrun in countries such as the USA and Sweden. 

As you’ll see, allowing local event teams to deliver a common free experience around the world require dedicated, hardworking staff working full-time and they need to be paid. Many have moved from well-paid jobs and taken a pay cut to work for an organisation that they believe, quite rightly, could change the world. I know because I was one of them for several months. I know how hard the team work and that they’d love to do so for free as a volunteer but, just like you and I, they have bills to pay, families to support etc etc. It would therefore be naive to think that parkrun couldn’t deliver what it does without paid employees. 

parkrun UK is a not-for-profit organisation. Just to be clear what that means, here’s a quote from Wikipedia:

“In economic terms, a not for profit organisation uses its surplus revenues to further achieve its purpose or mission, rather than distributing its surplus income to the organization’s shareholders (or equivalents) as profit or dividends.”

Just to be clear, parkrun UK has no shares nor shareholders.  No-one is benefiting financially from the success of parkrun and yet thousands of us benefit as parkrunners each weekend. 

Because we benefit by being able to attend a weekly free event, we’re getting active, we’re immersed in communities with passion, we’re volunteering and all of that is (possibly) making us better citizens. Our fitness and the fitness of our families and friends who are becoming parkrunners is likely to have an impact on the health of the nation and beyond and as fitter members of the population, we’re likely to require less of the NHS’s services in the future rhereby reducing our burden on it, our local councils etc. 

We’re joining running clubs, buying kit, entering paid events etc etc. We’re doing so because parkrun is able to provide us with an opportunity to get active with likeminded people for free every week. This opportunity is priceless but shouldn’t have a price put on it particularly by local councils who want to make some money whilst getting all the benefits to the residents that parkrun provides. 

One final thing. Keeping our parks full and vibrant provides a real barrier to them closing. In many towns and cities, such parks provide the only safe green space and with increasing populations, a need for affordable hoisting etc, such parks are at risk of closing. Yes, managing and maintaining such parks costs ££££ but charging parkrun is not the answer when it provides so many explicit and implicit benefits. 

So, that’s my opinion and the rationale behind it. Hopefully, common sense will prevail and no council will ever charge parkrun or parkrunners to participate in a free event that has the power to make a massive positive impact.  

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