The Victorians recognised the public health benefits of parks and green spaces. Victoria Park in east London was created by the Crown Estate in response to the health inequalities prevalent in the city in the late 19th Century. “Vicky Park” is now an institution, and there was much concern and consternation when, under police advice, it had to close for a period recently.
Frederik Law Olmsted created Central Park in New York in response to a cholera outbreak in the city, having visited Birkenhead Park, the oldest public park in the UK, in 1850. During that period, Britain saw the advent of bandstands, pavilions, lidos and, along with organised sport, sports fields. Our parks were one of the jewels in the crown of our nation.
London’s many great parks, including the Royal Parks, were bequeathed to us by the Victorians and, despite the stereotypical and much lampooned “parkies” – park keepers with authoritarian tendencies – were joyous and beautiful places for all to gather in and enjoy, regardless of wealth or class. Hyde Park alone has hosted everything from the Great Exhibition in 1851, with Thomas Paxton’s Crystal Palace, to the Rolling Stones free concert in 1969 and Live 8 in 2005. London’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games led to the post-Games creation of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, opened in 2014, also, in part, in recognition of health inequalities.
As well as being beneficial to both physical and mental health, reducing stress levels and blood pressure, parks provide a range of other benefits, including urban cooling (reducing the heat in the city by up to six degrees centigrade), social cohesion (through being democratic, egalitarian spaces) and providing green infrastructure (for cycling or to prevent flooding), as well as adding value to house prices.
Yet our parks have stopped being a matter of civic pride. The Heritage Lottery Fund has written reports about the state of public parks in the UK, their chronic underfunding and the very real risk of their catastrophic decline. Unlike libraries, local authorities don’t have a statutory obligation to fund them or keep them open and can even sell them off.
A parliamentary inquiry held by the communities and local government committee in 2016 made 17 recommendations and concluded: “If action is taken, and appropriate priority given to parks, we do not believe it is too late to prevent a period of decline. However, if the value of parks and their potential contribution are not recognised, then the consequences could be severe for some of the most important policy agendas facing our communities today.”
That is due not to any shortage of horticultural expertise, which the UK is a world leader in, but rather to a lack of investment. This betrays a failure to recognise the commercial, health and environmental value of our parks. Any New Yorker or Londoner who recalls the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, when large urban parks became no-go areas and a drain on resources, will recognise that we are now at a defining moment.
Even so, the Evening Standard ran a headline at the end of last year that screamed, “Quarter of London parks break limits on filthy air”, as if it were the parks to blame for it. Can you imagine how bad London’s air would be without them?
During the current crisis, government ministers have proclaimed that we must keep parks open. And we have. They have been a great and vital outlet for people, an escape from the four walls. It is nice to be recognised and wanted. And now we have done our bit, government must invest more in our parks and their maintenance. We must keep them open and save them from decline so they can be places for all and sources of community pride long after this crisis is over.
Mark Camley is executive director of park operations and venues with the London Legacy Development Corporation, which is responsible for the development of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. He is also a former Royal Parks chief executive. Follow Mark on Twitter.
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