How to build a social movement for the common good: key lessons from parkrun - RSA

How to build a social movement for the common good: key lessons from parkrun

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  • Picture of Jack Layton
    Jack Layton
    Intern - Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing
  • Mental health
  • Communities
  • Health & wellbeing
  • Social networks
  • Social innovation

Following the award of the 2019 Albert Medal to parkrun’s founder Paul Sinton-Hewitt CBE, Jack Layton reflects on what the movement has achieved and what others might learn from it.

On 3 December 2019 the RSA awarded Paul Sinton-Hewitt CBE the 2019 Albert Medal for his work founding parkrun.

The medal is awarded for innovation in the fields of creativity, commerce and social improvement, with previous winners including Tim Berners-Lee, Stephen Hawking, the Queen Mother and Marie Curie.

The RSA decided to award Paul this medal because parkrun has helped to make the world a healthier and happier place through its multimillion-strong network of volunteers and runners. It is a striking example of how a social movement can unite people for the common good and improve lives.

Following Paul’s heart-warming (and emotional!) address at the RSA after being awarded the medal, it is worth reflecting on what parkrun has achieved and what lessons can be learnt from it.

First of all, what is parkrun?

parkrun is a network of free, timed 5km runs, organised weekly by volunteers in local parks across the UK and around the world. It takes place in 1,400 locations, in 22 countries across five continents. At the time of writing, 6.3 million people have taken part and over 500,000 people have volunteered. It hasn’t always been so big: the very first parkrun – which Paul organised for his friends in Bushy Park in Teddington – had just 13 runners. When Bushy parkrun celebrated its 10-year anniversary in 2014, a record 1,705 people took part.

Is it just about running?

Not at all. As Paul’s address made clear, one of the key benefits people gain through parkrun is improved mental wellbeing. parkrun can give people an excuse to be outside in green space, to take part in an activity with others and volunteer to support their community. It’s well known that running can improve mental health; the additional aspects of volunteering and community spirit that come with parkrun only amplify this. It was touching to hear Paul tell stories of people who have found release and escape through parkrun. The contribution parkrun has made to people’s mental health and wellbeing cannot be underestimated.

parkrun also helps to build social connection and community. Each week a team of volunteers and runners work together to put on a welcoming event in a local place. These events are often designed to start or end by a café, so that the run naturally flows into a breakfast and coffee. As Paul mentioned in his address, the run can take 30 minutes but the coffee afterwards can often take a few hours! These rituals of togetherness can play an important role in creating social interaction – and even friendships. In a time of increasingly fractured working patterns, information silos and loneliness, events and groups like parkrun are an invaluable resource.

There is also an egalitarianism to parkrun that should be celebrated. The runs are free and will be free for everyone forever. There are competitive runners, but that is by no means the defining quality of the events. It’s as much about the joggers, walkers, pushchair pushers, kids and grandparents as it is about the sprinters at the front of the pack! During his address, Paul said he was proud of the fact that average finish times have got longer as parkrun has got older and that it’s not uncommon to see four generations of a family taking part together.

Taken as a whole, parkrun is an important piece of social infrastructure.

Social infrastructures are the spaces, places, events and organisations that facilitate social connections between people. Alan Latham and I have written about the importance of social infrastructure in making cities better places to live. Having a network of organisations and facilities that enable social connection is vital for overcoming some of society’s most pressing concerns: social isolation, political polarisation and finding ways to live together. Parkrun is a wonderful example of how an organisation can revitalise the public spaces of cities and make them lively, engaging and welcoming places to spend time.

So, what can be learnt from parkrun? And how do you build a social movement for the common good?

Here are three key considerations.

  1. People will do tremendous things when they’re passionate and engaged with something. Although the benefits of parkrun clearly extend well beyond running, parkrun would not have had the success it has had if running wasn’t at the heart of it. As Paul put it in his address: parkrun may well be the most successful public health initiative of the 21st century, but it is successful precisely because it isn’t a public health initiative. The egalitarianism, community building and mental health benefits all flow from people being passionate about running. parkrun wouldn’t have worked if it had set out to create an egalitarian movement to mobilise volunteers and build community: the key was setting out to build something that would help people run 5k.  
  2. The principles need to be designed in. Conscious decisions need to be made about how the organisation will work. For parkrun, this is most clearly seen in their decision to never charge people to take part – even when a local council applied pressure on them to do so. Keeping the events free ensures that they always feel public and egalitarian. Another example is their decision to reward runners who have participated in 10, 50, 100, 250, or 500 runs with t-shirts – regardless of whether they have volunteered or not. This removes any sense of pressure or obligation to take on additional responsibilities. If you want to run, you can just run. This has helped keep parkrun welcoming.
  3. Be prepared to adapt and grow. parkrun has evolved and grown over time. Since Paul set it up for his friends it has become a key feature of the amateur sporting landscape – up there alongside the London Marathon, Race for Life and the London to Brighton bike ride. It has also partnered with the Royal College of General Practitioners on an initiative which encourages GPs to ‘prescribe’ parkrun to patients, helping solidify the health benefits of the group. parkrun has even expanded into running events in prisons, creating opportunities for exercise, camaraderie and volunteering.

parkrun is a pioneering social innovation. This weekend, why not think about joining the 6 million runners, joggers, and walkers taking part up and down the country – or maybe volunteer! – and see what it’s all about.

Paul's full speech:

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  • A ground-breaking social innovation that other sports, countries and many people around the world are trying to copy. Inspiring!