The Landscape Guide

Public parks in London

London has a great heritage of public parks with significant differences in their landscape qualities. The sharpest divide is between

How do we know which parks are well used? Inspection - no comparative figures are collected and published. But no one who has visited the parks can doubt the facts: some parks are very popular and some are scarcely used.

A sensible policy would be to care for the the good parks and re-plan the unpopular parks. But to attract new users, parks will require new uses. This would seem an obvious policy but since 1994 the primary source of funds for capital spending on public parks has been the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) which has seen its mission as the 'restoration' of public parks to some imagined former glory. Without a heed or a care for the why or the wherefore, the HLF just pays out money for 'restoration'. It is rather as though public libraries were being 'restored' by stocking the shelves with all the books they held in 1900. The policy is good for historians but irrrelevant to most park users. Nor does the HLF provide maintenance funding to follow its capital funding.

One might think park managers do not know what park users want. This would be a mistake. In the most underused parks one find notices 'No barbecues', 'No swimming', 'No golf practice', 'No Fishing'. 'No dogs'. 'No alcohol'. So the municipal authorities know exactly what users want - and aim to stop them doing it. Why should this be? Here are some of the explanations:

  • A failure to change with the times. Many parks were created as a public health measure, hoping to persuade the working classes to give up booze and take up sport. Duh.
  • A failure to fund urban parks: there is no statutory requirenement on local authorities to provide parks and open spaces: the best maintained public parks in London are the Royal Parks maintained by central government and appropriately maintained.
  • A failure to distinguish bounded space from unbounded space. Public gardens need to be gated and protected. On common land, people need to be as free as on the beach.
  • A failure to give public parks and gardens love and care. Maintenance contracts are appropriate only when they allow for long term care
  • A failure to learn from other countries. Beer gardens and public barbecue areas, for example, work very well in Germany. Why shouldn't we have them in London parks?
  • As Patrick Geddes observed in 1915, there has been a failure to provide for the activities of children who are at most granted a cricket-pitch, or lent a space between football goals, but otherwise are jealously watched, as potential savages, who on the least symptom of their natural activities of wigwam-building, cave-digging, stream-damming, and so on must instantly be chevied away, and are lucky if not hounded out of the place'.

So what should be done? As the London 2004 Open Space Plan requires, borough councils must prepare open space strategies. They should however ignore the recommendation to base their strategies on the outdated GLC hierarchy of park types. Instead, they should:

Open space strategies should take care to distinguish between

When an unhappy gark has been identified, it should be be replanned either as a garden (walled, locked at night, cared for by a permanent staff of trained garden designers) or as a park (managed by landscape managers with skill in habitat management). Two of the best parkland landscapes in London are Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park. Both have special ownership and management arrangements but Russia Dock Woodland has shown that municipal councils are equally capable of maintaining high quality habitats.

Southwark Park Southwark Park Southwark Park
Southwark Park
The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded £2,694,500 to Southwark Park
HOMEPAGE - Landscape Architecture London List

'Potential savages' in Eltham Park

Barbecue by the Thames in West London

A sign in Burgess Park (2006)

Eltham Park in a peak period (3 pm on Saturday 24th June 2006). The only users are beneath the trees in the centre of the photo (see telephoto shot, below)

Beer garden by the Thames in West London