Park strife

13 Jun|Travis Elborough

Park loaf: idling in Regents Park

Author Travis Elborough says that those elegant and civilizing idling zones – parks – may be under threat

The Swiss author Robert Walser once argued that it always feels like a Sunday in a park. Like Sundays, parks certainly occupy a unique temporal zone. For their visitors at least, they seem at one remove from workaday life. Time within them can be wasted, parks supplying the ideal location when we’ve nothing else to do. Or desperately want to do nothing in particular, and as languorously as possible. Many parks are landscapes which, as that painterly term betrays, were laid out to be looked at, and can often still be best admired from a bench or at a slow walking pace.

Parks, though, are more than just pleasant spots for metropolitan dilettantes like myself and dossers (and doggers) to while time away in. On a practical level they lower the ambient temperature of cities, aid water retention and so reduce the risk of flooding and provide habitats for wildlife. 

Even setting aside these not inconsiderable environmental pluses, parks largely continue to be one of those rare institutions that are open to all and free at the point of entry. They embody an ideal of civic life that is increasingly imperilled by government’s cuts and more generally by the commercialisation of public space. 

Parks, like sewers, democratic government, trade unions and public libraries, emerged in the nineteenth century and in response to rapid urbanisation and population growth in the wake of the industrial revolution. Then, areas of open space were being enclosed for agriculture or built upon, with smokey chimneys rising as leafy bowers were fenced off or buried under brick. 

It is fair to say that parks of the Victorian and Edwardian era came more heavily weighted with do-gooding intentions and pedagogical ambitions. Moralists, then as now, were worried about idleness leading to sinfulness, or participation in the wrong kind of leisure activity – i.e. drinking, gambling, etc.

Social reformers, temperance campaigners and well-heeled philanthropists, therefore, put great store in pockets of verdant beauty having a civilising effect on the masses. In place of drunken pugilistic contests in tavern gardens and dog fights and other rough and ready entertainments on patches of common land, carefully landscaped parks and public walks were promoted as health-giving means of supplying morally improving  ‘rational recreation’ – to use the jargon of the day. 

Still it’s thanks to the foresight of these high-minded forebears and campaigns by the likes of Octavia Hill to save areas of open ground like Epping Forest and Hampstead Heath, that the country remains blessed with such a diverse array of greenery. There are estimated to be some 27,000 parks across Britain. A government inquiry into public parks, whose report was published in February, counted around 37 million people as “regular users”. (We can only hope that at least some of these users are using their parks idly, as it were.)  

But this report was prepared in response to growing concerns about the state of parks in Britain. Across the country it calculated that 92 per cent of all park budgets were found to have been cut to some degree – while in Newcastle the funds for parks were slashed by some 97 per cent. And it was far from the sole example of such extreme pruning of park budgets. At Sidcup in Kent, sections of parkland had already been sold by the time it appeared. While the cancellation last year of a charity run by Parkrun near Bristol over Stoke Gifford Parish Council’s demand for fees to repair Little Stoke Park after the event had already made the issue of paying for the upkeep of our green spaces headline news. One response has been simply to increase commercial activities. 

In Battersea Park and indicative of this trend, a well-used if down-at heel free adventure playground was handed over to private company, Go Ape, to refurbish and then run at a profit with entrance fees. Over in west London, a lease signed by Hammersmith and Fulham Council with the sports company Play Football to turn over a third of Hammersmith Park into pay-to-play football pitches was only scaled back following a campaign led by the local resident, author and Idler agony aunt, Virginia Ironside. The success of such campaigns and the acknowledgement by central government that parks are in trouble, but loved by their users and good for us and the broader environment, prove that we must not be idle when it comes to them. We must use them or risk losing them, or see too many of their facilities infected with the profit motive rather than the philanthropic (if albeit paternal) ideals they were founded with. 

What’s in a name

Our word park comes from the Anglo-Norman for “enclosed preserve for beasts of the chase,” and comes from hunting hence also “sport” and “game” for joy, fun; amusement. 

Britain’s Longest-Running Model Steam Boat Club: 

Victoria Park in Bow, was London first purpose-built public park. It is home to the oldest continuous model steam boating club in the world, which was founded in 1904 with the aid of a £1 donation from Horatio Bottomley, the MP for South Hackney and a founder of the Financial Times, later jailed for fraud.  

Playing Fields For All 

In 1925, General Reginald J. Kentish, a former commander and British representative on the International Olympic Committee, founded the National Playing Fields Association and started lobbying for an “Open Spaces Standard” of five acres per 1,000 head of population. 

Of those five acres, four were to be dedicated to physical recreation. 

Birkenhead Inspiration for Central Park 

In 1850, and on a tip off from a local baker, Frederick Law Olmsted, a young American farmer and journalist on a tour of England, visited Birkenhead’s then new public park. 

Astonished by the “perfection of its gardening”, Olmsted was equally impressed that the park was freely open to the public. Eight years later he would go on to co-design Central Park and always cited Birkenhead as his model for New York’s own great public park. 

Dennis the Menace’s Debut 

Dennis the Menace’s debut strip in The Beano comic back in March 1951 featured the stripey-shirted, bog-brush haired tearaway infuriating a jobsworth of a keeper by flaunting the “Keep off the Grass” signs in a public park. 

Park Floral Flowers Behind Sgt Pepper 

Paul McCartney confessed to his biographer, Barry Miles, that the original concept for the cover of the group’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP was to have the Fab Four posing as corporation bandsmen standing in front of a “huge floral clock” in “a park somewhere up north…very council”.

Pretty Green Capital 

47% of London is green space, making it of the greenest cities in the world for its size. 

There is currently a campaign to have Greater London made a national park. 

For more information see:

Travis Elborough is the author of A Walk in the Park: The Life and Times of a People’s Institution, out in paperback on 1 June 2017

“This is a fascinating, informative, revelatory book,”  – William Boyd, The Guardian 

Read his review in full here: