One of the daftest scenes in the best Scottish film ever made – Trainspotting, of course – features Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Millar, an air rifle and (the important bit for our purposes) a skinhead sunning himself in a public park with his Pitbull Terrier by his side. McGregor shoots the pug who bites the skinhead who screams blue murder.

If you’ve seen the film you’ll remember it. Even if you haven’t you may have witnessed a variation of the scene playing out somewhere near where you live. The air rifle is a fictional extra we could do without, but the important real-life constituents are too much booze, too few clothes, sunshine and green space. Whatever quantities you mix them in, the end result is often the same: mischief and tumult, such as you only encounter in a Scottish park.

Of course that’s not the whole story, by any means. For generations Scots have turned to parks and green spaces for past-times other than riot and bother. Blether, leisure and dog-walking are the prime uses, but more than that our parks have become emblems of civic pride and community cohesion, and as such we often invest them with their own lore and mythology. That can turn on their being viewed as symbols of urban self-determination or of history, but it can also be personal and grounded in an individual’s experience of a particular space. Maybe you met your partner in one or walked an aged parent round one. Maybe it was there you had a first childhood encounter with a bicycle or football that would change your life forever.

Conceptual artist Martin Boyce, a graduate of Glasgow School of Art and the winner of the 2011 Turner Prize, has made deeply personal work inspired by a childhood spent hanging around the municipal parks of his hometown of Hamilton. His 2002 Tramway exhibition, Our Love Is Like The Flowers, The Rain, The Sea And The Hours, features stylized versions of trees, benches and bins (his lean crazily from whichever angle they’re viewed). The work is now owned by Tate Britain, which describes it as alluding to “an urban park at night” which is “always supposed to convey the feeling of a winter hinterland”. Boyce himself has spoken a lot about his interest in utopias – the ones the urban planners dream up for kids in places like Hamilton and the ones the kids fashion for themselves out of what’s left when the swings have been knotted together, the roundabout torched and the whole thing exposed to decades of grim Scottish weather. “I wanted to have that same feeling of a space you might have occupied as a teenager, that place you find for yourself,” he has said. “Exterior spaces like a park at night. The kind of urban park, that gap between the city and the suburbs, or gaps inside the city.”

You’ll find parks – small and large, obvious and hidden away, tended or not tended, utopian or otherwise – in any and all Scottish cities and towns. Glasgow Green, for instance, has been integral to the city’s notion of itself for hundreds of years. It has been camped on by Jacobites, wandered on by James Watt as he cooked up improvements to his steam engine and tramped over by gatherings of Chartists, Suffragettes and anti-war campaigners (John Maclean held a famous rally there). More recently, it has been the site of pop concerts and rock festivals. Edinburgh, meanwhile, has Holyrood Park and The Meadows, which narrowly escaped being buried under a six-lane motorway in the 1960s. Aberdeen, Dundee, Stirling, Perth and Inverness all have their own versions. We also have two national parks – covering Loch Lomond and the Cairngorms – and dozens of large country parks, often located near to or on the periphery of cities, and in the estates of grand houses. Zoom in on a city map and you’ll also find a patchwork of tiny parks and playgrounds in suburbs and housing estates. Some might not even have a name.

Parklife: The small joys of our local parks, by Teddy Jamieson

“Public parks and spaces have always been really important in Scotland,” says Julie Procter, chief executive of Green Space Scotland (GSS), a charity. “Glasgow Green is the oldest park but also in Victorian times we saw people like Andrew Carnegie and other philanthropic industrialists starting to endow public parks. We also saw lots of parks coming into existence through public subscription which, if we fast forward to the 21st century, would be like the equivalent of crowd funding now.”

As someone who spent decades living in city centre tenement flats, I’ve spent hours and hours in Scotland’s parks over the years. I’ve met fantasy role players clashing swords like they were in an episode of Game Of Thrones, Quidditch teams practising for the start of the new season (yes, it’s a thing), unicyclists, jugglers, slack-line walkers and any number of people playing gridiron, frisbee, bowls, boules, baseball and, of course, cricket. All human life is out there enjoying the space and the sunshine.

Not at the moment, though. With the country in lockdown the country’s parks are either shut or have restricted access, and barbecues and impromptu gatherings of sunbathers or tinny-guzzling revellers are much frowned upon by the constabulary. Also proscribed are the more benign gatherings and activities which parks host. And so shuttered gates and official signage are depriving us of the many uplifting aspects of park life – parents playing with their children, children playing with each other, people laughing and joking, pop-up stalls selling falafels or flat whites, joggers of every size and colour in Lycra to match.

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone? So sang Joni Mitchell in Big Yellow Taxi. Our parks aren’t gone but the lockdown is a great opportunity to think about what life might be like if they were. That’s not as fanciful as it sounds, either. Research by GSS found that over the last nine years council spend on parks and green spaces has reduced by 32% and, while 90% of urban Scots think it important to have green space in their community, people’s ratings of the quality of the areas provided has dropped dramatically in line with the cuts. That fact was already impacting on their use well before the start of the lockdown.

“Anecdotally it doesn’t take much in terms of litter not being cleared and bins not being emptied for a park to go from somewhere you want to spend time to somewhere you don’t want to let your kids play out,” says Procter. “And what we’ve seen is that budgets have been spent on what you might call the destination parks and less on the doorstep, neighbourhood parks. They’re the ones that are even more important for us at the moment.”

How important is revealed by another piece of GSS research, a recent cost-benefit study undertaken with the City of Edinburgh Council. It found that for every £1 spent on Edinburgh’s parks and green space, £12 came back in terms of social, economic and environmental benefits, to an annual total of £40 million. On top of that you can add other benefits that might be less easy to quantify: on mental health, for instance, or that primal thrill kids get when they can belt across an expanse of grass longer than the average suburban garden.

For Procter, that means we have to start thinking very differently about parks and green spaces, about how we resource them, what they’re for and what more they can do for us. If there’s to be a post-pandemic renewal of the social contract, let’s make sure they feature in discussion about health and health security.

“It is going to be a challenge because we are heading into a pretty deep recession, but there is now an opportunity to think about how we make sure our parks and green spaces, which were seen by politicians as absolutely crucial for our exercise during lockdown, continue to be invested in to deliver those same benefits.”

That will involve change and innovation. For instance, one way to safely bring children back to school might be to teach them outdoors as much as possible. Could the post-pandemic UK see a boost in funding for the nascent forest schools programme? A second way is to use parks and green spaces to generate power. It’s not as crazy as it sounds and in fact it’s already happening: Saughton Park in Edinburgh, recently re-developed and an unheralded gem in the west of the city complete with skatepark, bandstand, walled garden and café, has horizontal and vertical ground-source heat pumps installed under its playing pitches. Last year, work started on a micro-hydro project which will use an Archimedes Screw to generate power from the nearby Water of Leith. Finally, with the availability and production of fresh food also much in the news, there’s the prospect of using parks and green spaces much as they were used in the Second World War – to grow produce, only with ground source power used to heat greenhouses and poly-tunnels. Put it all together and it’s possible for any large park to be economically self-sufficient.

So if anything good can come out of the Covid 19 pandemic it may be that there’s a chance to hit reset where parks and green spaces are concerned – to force a reappraisal by councils, governments and whichever inheritors of Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic zeal might be reading this of the need to create, maintain and, crucially, to fund them. It wouldn’t be the first time improvements have come out of disaster. New York’s famous Central Park was created in the wake of a devastating cholera epidemic in 1849. Designer Frederick Law Olmsted lost a child to cholera and went on to build a further 100 public parks right across America.

What Scotland does when the sun comes out to play

Souls shaped by the land