There has been a lot of debate recently about Stoke Gifford Parish Council’s decision to charge the local Parkrun event for use of a public park to stage a free weekly 5k run. As a runner, and Parkrunner, myself, I agree with the thousands of runners who believe we should be protecting Parkrun as free weekly events. But, as a sociologist, I think the issue is slightly more complex than some commentators have made it seem. My Facebook and Twitter feeds have been full all week with comments about charging money to a free service, which has entertained me given the business models of the social media sites such comments are posted on. This has lead me to thinking over these issues, and whether a public health initiative, in a publicly funded park, should be free, or whether an alternative model could be more beneficial.
What is Parkrun?
Parkrun, as an event, is a weekly Saturday morning 5k organised in public parks across the UK (and beyond). There are currently 395 events taking place each week, in which people of any age and ability can just turn up and run. Locations are added when a community gets together and organises an event in their local park, with support provided by Parkrun Ltd to make that happen. Runs are timed, marshalled by volunteers and each runner has their own barcode (available for free by creating an account on their website) which is scanned at the finish. It’s intended to both be as informal and welcoming as possible, but also professionally organised. The website provides details of all runs than an individual has taken part in, and some statistics about performance over time. There is no requirement for runners to do anything other than turn up, run, and go home. There is encouragement to volunteer at an event if you attend regularly, which varies from standing at key junctions to show the way, scanning barcodes at the finish and ‘sweeping’ behind the last runner to ensure everyone gets to the end safely. Thus, they operate like paid-for runs, but at no cost to the runners.
Parkrun Ltd, as an organisation, is essentially a social enterprise. It has a paid staff and income, mostly derived from sponsors. It sells merchandise, generally t-shirts and hoodies with either the Parkrun branding or as exclusive clothing celebrating having attended or volunteered at an impressive number of events. As a social enterprise, its board members are unpaid (and are required to have participated in events prior to appointment) and any surplus income must be fed back into it’s social purpose. This is similar to a large number of other social enterprises, including charities, housing associations and credit unions.
I’d argue you could also see Parkrun as a social movement. It is essentially a network of small events, holding a common purpose of providing inclusive opportunities for people to encounter exercise in a supportive environment and has many devoted followers. Parkrun aims to provide weekly runs to people who might feel excluded from the performance-related connotations of a race, and presents itself as a timed run in which people are competing solely with themselves. Many people feel Parkrun is much more than just a running event, but a public health revolution which allows people to take control of their exercise through events organised by their peers and within which they have a real voice. Being free is central to that ethos.
Why the controversy?
Stoke Gifford Parish Council have now decided to charge the organisers of the Little Stoke Parkrun for use of their park. This is an event which has been staged 170 times since it’s inception in December 2012, averaging 266 runners at those events staged so far in 2016. The Parish Council have issued a statement as to why they feel the need to charge the event, these include:
- The fact that it’s operated by an organisation with national sponsors
- The use toilet and washing facilities, which generate a cost to the council
- The effect on other users as the park is dominated by the event for two hours each Saturday morning
- Parking issues with operating an event of that size and the implications for residents
- Increased wear and tear of park facilities due to the large weekly event
- And that a large proportion of the participants are not from the local area and therefore are not contributing to the upkeep of the park.
Further to this, the council’s chair has made comparisons to the football teams who use the park and have to pay to hire the pitch. These claims have been rejected by supporters of Parkrun, who believe there should be encouragement for people to exercise and utilise public spaces. They also argue that Parkrun is a fantastic public health initiative and support be encouraged. Indeed, some events have received funding from their local council towards running costs due to the benefits they deliver.
Academic research into Parkruns has agreed there is a benefit. A quantitative study suggested a quarter of participants regarded themselves as ‘non-runners’ when they first signed up, of which 45% believed they were overweight. A qualitative study suggested the events are seen as accessible, inclusive and supportive and provide an easy gateway for people to move towards reaching recommended levels of weekly exercise. Public health researchers have seen Parkrun as offering opportunities for helping to get people fit and, therefore, should be encouraged.
Are the benefits of Parkrun purely down the fact they are free?
This is the question which is impossible to sensibly answer. There are many things which are carry health benefits and a cost to the user – local authority leisure centres would be a good example.
Whilst Parkruns have an ethos of free provision, there are many other running events which charge runners to take part. Some of these, such as the Race for Life series, combine both charges for runners with a desire to encourage people into taking part in a 5k. There are also many events organised by running clubs, which often do have to pay local authorities for use of public land. This is despite, like Parkrun, those clubs operating effectively as social enterprise in terms of reinvesting their surplus into their own aims or public benefit. For instance, I’m a member of a club who donates 10% of the surplus from the Crieff 10k and Strathearn Marathon to local charities, in addition to their coaching of local children. Many clubs and other social enterprises organise events but charge a small fee to attend. In the age of corporations such as Twitter and Facebook, we need to move beyond looking at finances being based on the cost to the user and rather the income generated. Although it’s difficult to get an income figure for Parkrun Ltd, their Companies House returns imply they spent at least £300,000 last year.
There is an argument that Parkrun provides a benefit in terms of encouraging people who wouldn’t otherwise run into the activity. For comparison, we could look at the distribution of runners in 5k events both before Parkrun was brought to the UK and in the last few weeks. These races have been selected simply as they are events I know and believe are comparable, rather than being representative of anything. These are:
- Wirral Seaside Run – August 2005 (a cheap (£3 I think) 5k along the Wirral coastline, pay on the day only)
- Alexandra Park 5k – December 2006 (about £2 I think, three laps of a park and pay on the morning only – differed to Parkrun only in that you had to pay and they had no website, but results accessible through John Schofield’s excellent site)
- Wirral Seaside Run – March 2016 (£3/£5, pay on the day, a paid alternative to Parkrun)
- Perth Parkrun – 26th March 2016 (free, just turn up).
Perth Parkrun does seem to differ to the other events in a few ways. Only 29% of people were members of running clubs, compared to 47%-58% of the other events. 26% took over 30 minutes and just 9% under 20 minutes, suggesting a different clientèle to the other races. However, how much of this is due to the event being free and how much is due to the well-marketed branding of the events warrants debate. Indeed, paid events usually have a £2 reduction for UK Athletics members, which was what encouraged me to join a running club.
Parkrun has obviously done a lot to encourage people into exercise, but it’s unclear how much that is connected to fees. The qualitative article into Parkrun does include quotes saying that being free is a benefit, but focusses much more on the ease of just turning up and running as being important. One thing I enjoy is being able to turn up at 9:25 on a whim and start a 9:30 race – being required to register on the day would compromise that sphere of the moment feeling, whilst any requirement to have funds (however small) on people’s account to take part and pay through barcodes being scanned would be off-putting for many.
A potential business model
Parkrun has an ethos of encouraging people to take part in exercise, for free, in the great outdoors. Running 5k once per week will not meet recommended exercise levels, so people should feel inspired to run around the same parks on other days. Hence, provision of safe running facilities across the UK should be part of Parkrun’s ethos.
I would regard the ‘Freenium’ business model utilised by other websites as perhaps being the way forward for Parkrun. This involves providing a service for free, but an improved service for those who pay. The music streaming site Spotify offers a good example of this – everyone can listen to the same music, but only those who pay can avoid the adverts. This exact method wouldn’t work for Parkrun, with its ethos of equality, but a variation upon it.
The running website Fetcheveryone recently introduced a voluntary subscription fee, which nobody has to pay, or gets much benefit from, but which helps towards running costs. A discussion on the forum suggests many fees have been paid. This is, essentially, the same system as used in museums throughout the UK and also how Wikipedia funds itself.
I believe Parkrun would move to the next level of its social movement if it introduced an annual voluntary donation scheme, requesting people make a donation to the ‘Friends of‘ group associated with their local park. This should be entirely voluntary and anonymous, as it to give no identification of who might not have donated. This would maintain the ethos of running for all, but actively encouraged to contribute towards the public spaces they enjoy.
The debate is currently focusing on why Parkrun should be free, rather than exploring whether, now it is established, there are potential opportunities arising from the issues raised by the parish council. Whilst it’s currently possible to donate to Parkrun, I’d see encouraging people to give back to the public spaces which have provided something to them as a nice extension of the movement. This would allow for environmental as well as public health benefits to emerge from getting people into the great outdoors.
14 April 2016