Last month saw me attend the Blogfest blogging conference for the first time, as a guest of Coca-Cola. The conference was a lot of fun, and for me the highlight was catching up with some of my favourite bloggers.
It was particularly brilliant to see Laura – we’ve worked together since 2012, and she’s hands down one of the funniest people I know.
Laura and I can have an entire conversation using nothing but cat photos, or motivational posters from Pinterest. She’s one of a fairly small group of people I start to miss if we haven’t spoken in a while, and I’ll make a point of calling her just ‘because’. And by ‘because’ I mean she’s dark and twisted inside and therefore makes me laugh like a drain, even on a spectacularly tough day.
And yet for all that, Laura and I pretty much never see each other in person – we’re Internet friends. Before this year, we hadn’t seen each other in person since 2011.
So a big thanks to Coca-Cola for bringing together two friends, both of whom are (it turns out) completely unable to tell the difference between the different varieties of Coke in a blind taste test. #fail But it was fabulous to have a buddy to attend sessions with, as I suspect I’m not the only person who walks into this sort of event with a vague terror of, “but what if nobody talks to me??”
The other highlight of the day was catching up on some of Coca-Cola’s projects in the UK.
About a year ago, I was in Tanzania with Coca-Cola and I was really blown away by how seriously the corporation takes its Corporate Social Responsibility – around the world Coke is involved in some projects that deliver life-changing (and sometimes life-saving) help to communities and people in need.
At Blogfest, I had the opportunity to learn more about Coca-Cola in the UK, and specifically the £20m Park Lives project, which is a partnership between Coca-Cola’s Coke Zero, and local authorities around the UK that provides activities in community parks in cities with high levels of social deprivation.
Park Lives currently operates in Birmingham, Newcastle, Manchester, Nottingham and Newham in London, and activities take place in 70 parks across these areas. The plan is to run the project over six years and increase investment into new areas – local authorities should soon be able to apply for funding for their own Park Lives projects in other parts of the UK.
The intention of Park Lives isn’t to make runners of us all (God forbid), but rather to encourage us to be a little more active, and to be a part of our local community.
As anyone who’s ever done ten laps of a park pushing a pram in a vain attempt to keep a baby asleep will know – parks are hugely important. But they’re not just a lifeline for new Mums, of course.
Our local park in Lytham is a true community hub. It’s a place for children, and families, but it’s also for the dog walkers and the skaters and the football players and the nature lovers, and … well, pretty much anyone you know will turn up there sooner or later.
We have a huge playground and sand and water play area. There’s a cafe and a community centre and a kitchen garden and a nature walk. There are exercise machines, a skate park, basketball courts and a BMX track. There’s even an amphitheatre, which is used a lot by local community groups in the summer months.
But parks like this are the exception, not the rule. And in areas where funds are tight, local authorities often struggle to provide even the most basic of services. Some statistics suggest that funding for parks and open spaces in England was cut by £75m between 2010 and 2013.
Park Lives lets those authorities deliver a range of activities that are all designed – in different ways – to get people outdoors, in their community, having fun with other people, and being active. There are walking groups and fitness groups, but there are also animal grooming workshops, rounders tournaments, tai chi classes and bowling groups.
Of course, attending a Park Lives session every Sunday won’t counteract drinking half a dozen cans of a sugary soft drink a week, and Park Lives has its critics. But I don’t think that’s the point.
Our government does not currently prioritise spending on public parks. Gyms and health clubs can be prohibitively expensive for many people, especially in more deprived communities. During 2014, 70 different parks took part in 105 different Park Lives activities, offering more than 22,500 free sessions to people in the UK. And private-public partnerships like Park Lives help make things better. And I struggle to see that as a bad thing.
It’s hoped that Park Lives will reach 10 major cities and 20 towns across the UK by 2020, and you can find out more over on the Park Lives website.
Disclosure: Coca-Cola covered my accommodation, travel and ticket expenses to attend the Blogfest conference and a dedicated workshop with Coca-Cola GB team members to learn about their work.