IF the choice right now were between a weekend in Falkirk or France, I’d take Falkirk.

That’s not a sentence I ever thought I’d write, but it’s sincerely meant. Given how we’ve lucked out with this glorious, gold-standard summer weather, hauling yourself off to a tourist-choked resort on the Med seems pointless when you could buy yourself a baguette and sit on the grass in Helix Park.

Helix Park, the former industrial wasteland between Falkirk and Grangemouth, has been a little paradise lately. It’s a shining example of how, with confidence, vision and commitment, unprepossessing landscape can be transformed into something a bit magical.

It is famous for the magnificent Kelpies, Andy Scott’s monumental sculptures of working horses (which are achingly beautiful and rightly revered), but the site has much more besides. A thoroughly modern reimagining of the Victorian public park, it is a huge space with a feeling of boundlessness, a wildlife haven with its own wetland, a riot of wildflowers, a network of paths and cycle routes that connect 16 communities, and a destination for families with an adventure playground worthy of the name. The restored Forth and Clyde Canal shimmers through it. It has a lagoon, for heaven’s sake. No wonder the outdoor tables of its stylish cafes have been so much in demand.

A piece of land so unloved that cars were once dumped in the disused canal, it is now a place where people come to laugh, to run, to lunch, to play. A place like this unfetters the spirit. In short, it does the very thing its creators hoped it would do: it brings joy to people’s lives.

But who would build a Helix Park now? Its transformation began before the financial crash, made possible by a Big Lottery grant awarded in 2007, with a host of far-sighted funders, including Falkirk Council and Scottish Canals, also committing to the project. The park opened in 2013. Many councils and public bodies would no doubt love to embark on such large-scale visionary projects nowadays, but how many would have the confidence to take on even a portion of the set-up and maintenance costs, their ambition tamed and their hearts filled with angst by years of austerity?

Councils in particular are operating in a financial straitjacket. This, and rising demand for services like social care, have taken their toll, with the result that leisure, cultural and environmental services have taken a sustained hit. Councils could soon be spending four-fifths of their budgets on education and social work alone, according to the Accounts Commission. Fly-tipping, graffiti, weed-choked pathways and poor road maintenance are all on the rise again in many communities. No one would argue that building a new park should take precedence over caring properly for the elderly or supporting overstretched schools but when councils are forced to make such invidious choices year after year, there is serious detriment in the end. The danger is that austerity could usher in the return of overgrown wastelands.

What a sadness that would be. It doesn’t take an expert to see how life-enhancing a well cared-for public green space can be (though a tower of PhD theses have been written on the topic). It’s hard to quantify how many tormented souls have found peace walking in quiet parkland, how many heart attacks have been averted by exercise regimes that have had their faltering beginnings there, how many of the sick have boosted their recovery times by immersing themselves in green spaces, but anyone with eyes can see how important such sites are to a largely urban-dwelling population. We humans need green space like we need a healthy diet.

There is no quick solution to the squeeze on public finances, but perhaps we don’t need to reinvent the (Falkirk) wheel to create, or improve, green spaces in Scotland. Perhaps we just need to think more creatively. How many reservoirs, for instance, are underdeveloped for public use? Could Scottish Water widen more paths, or collaborate with local artists to install sculptures? Could landowners and estate managers work more proactively with local communities to extend Scotland’s wheelchair, buggy and cycle-friendly by-ways?

One fact is clear: projects succeed when they are propelled forwards by the enthusiasm of local people (the restoration of the Forth and Clyde Canal being a prime example). We are in an age of stubborn inequality when the rich keep getting richer and the poor ever more dispossessed. Now is the time for a new generation of Victorian-style philanthropists to emerge, redistributing their wealth through public works, guided by and in partnership with local people. How fabulous it would be if the sadly abandoned Charles Jencks land art project transforming an old opencast mine in Kelty, Fife, could be finished and turned into the world-class park it was meant to be.

Apparently, for urban people, living near a park has a longer-lasting effect on happiness levels than marrying or getting a promotion. When walking in a park, the moment that birdsong and the rustle of leaves becomes louder than the receding hum of traffic, can feel like coming up for air.

Having dear green spaces in our lives is a deep-seated, primal need. What a mistake it is to economise on something so fundamental.