The Garden Guide

Public parks

Public parks have an honoured place in the urban histories of  western cities. In many North European countries (eg France and Germany) they have benefitted from generous public expenditure. In America, selected parks (eg Central Park, NY) have benefitted from sponsorship. In the UK some heritage parks have benefitted from lottery funds.  Like public libraries, they were one of the great social inventions of the nineteenth century. But they have fallen on hard times. A majority of the places in the Garden Visit and Travel Guide are private gardens, but a number of public parks have been included.

When Friedrich Engles trod the streets of Manchester, and wrote the Condition of the Working Classes in England (1844), he saw streets flowing with sewage, air filled with smoke and noxious fumes, houses crowded as in a twentieth century shanty town. The public park was one of the solutions to this problem. Some were designed with as much pride as the gardens of a stately home. We should conserve these places, not modernise them.

Other parks were designed as playgrounds for the aristocracy. In earlier times lords and ladies met in and around the court. In the eighteenth century, they congregated at exclusive pleasure grounds with a high entrance fee, like Vauxhall and Ranlagh in London. In the nineteenth century, they met in those public parks which happened to be in wealthy districts. Regent's Park is a good example. When first laid out, it had no footpaths. Visitors were expected to view the park from their carriages.

Since 1945, British public parks have become increasingly less well-used and have been deprived of resources, for several reasons:

  1. Most people now have private gardens
  2. Most people now have cars, and can drive into the country for the 'green experience' which they once had in public parks
  3. Most people now have sedentary jobs. In their spare time, they want exercise, not rest.
  4. Government expenditure has shifted to other types of social service
  5. There is a greater concern about safety, and parks without park-keepers are not seen as safe places
  6. Public parks, like other state-run industries, have suffered from under-investment, over-rigid management and a lack of commitment to serving the consumer.
  7. UK parks were excluded from the Standard Spending Assessment. They are not a mandatory provision by local authorities.

What can be done?

  1. Historic parks parks should be conserved, like historic buildings which no longer serve the purpose for which they were made. This is being done using Heritage Lottery Fund money.
  2. Imaginative open space planning needs to take place at the municipal level. Most local plans contain little more than a nineteenth century plea for 'more open space', often expressed as a a target of '7 acres of open space/1,000' population.
  3. There is a great need for diversity in the design, management, ownership and control of individual parks.
  4. Some parks should be managed as nature reserves.
  5. Some parks should be managed with as much horticultural skill as the best private gardens. It is extraordinary that the greatest concentration of garden-lovers in the world (London) does not have a single park in which one can see the level of garden skill which has become common in gardens open to the public.
  6. Some parks should be incorporated into multi-functional Greenways - encouraging exercise more than rest.
  7. Individual parks need to escape from the sameness of municipal management. This can be done by giving land and the income-stream to trusts run by local people.