The Landscape Guide

15.6 Boundless Public Open Space

Contents list

During an Anglo-American conference on Green Cities, in 1984, one morning was spent on the edge of Birkenhead Park (Figure 15.6). Several lecturers, myself included, were heard waxing lyrical on how this grand old Mother Of The People's Park had sired so many fine daughters, in Britain and around the world. At lunchtime, Birkenhead's park managers proudly led the delegates forth to see the People's Park in full bloom. It was virtually empty. Round one corner we found some children who had climbed over the railings to catch pathetic fish in a dreary pond. Quickly, the park managers bawled them out. Then a chain-saw was heard, as some operatives removed a fallen tree. "What will you do with the wood?', asked an American delegate. "Burn it', said the manager. "But don't people live in those houses? Don't they have fires in their houses? Don't they need fuel for their fires?', she asked with rising indignation and hysteria. "Perhaps', replied the park manager, "but distribution would cause administrative problems'. Huh.

Better if they had left that Birkenhead tree where it fell. Since Gerard Manley Hopkins, a catholic priest, wrote Inversnaid, in 1881, immense tracts of wilderness have been tamed and his poem has become popular (Figure 15.7). Rich people can travel to wilderness areas for their vacations. Poor urbanites, in rich and poor countries, are deprived, at great management expense and great social cost, of genuine contact with the world that sustained their ancestors. The solution is to create new commons and new forests, in the medieval senses of these words. Their provision is a vital aspect of planning for sustainability. In modern Europe, the only space where one can feel free is the seashore. There, you can collect driftwood, catch crabs, run, swim, take off your clothes, build fires, sleep, experience nature. T.S. Eliot wrote, in The Waste Land, that "In the mountains, there you feel free'. But on the seashore, one can be freer still.

A medieval common was an area of land in private ownership, over which defined members of the public had defined rights: piscary (fishing), turbary (digging turf), estovers (gathering wood for fuel) and grazing. New Commons would be comparable, but different. The land would remain in private ownership. The public would acquire defined rights, by sale or by rent, for limited periods or in perpetuity, by voluntary sale or by compulsory purchase. Owners would continue to enjoy certain privileges but, if rewarded, would provide services to the public, such as the maintenance of footpaths, hedges and other vegetation, including orchards. Visitors to these New Commons would enjoy defined rights of access, as pedestrians or horse riders, and defined rights to hunt for nuts, mushrooms, fruits, fuel and, if agreed, animals. They could also have grazing rights.

Medieval forests were not woods. Some had very few trees. Primarily, they were hunting reserves. Robin Hood lived on, not in, Sherwood Forest. It was a heathland. It was not a wood. There were hardly any trees. And his merry men are unlikely to have worn green, which would have made them conspicuous. Forests were areas of land controlled by forest laws. Public rights in forest lands were similar to those in common lands. These rights pertained to local communities. If the forest was fenced, it was to keep animals in, not people out.

So where is the land that can be used to make New Commons and New Forests? Many countries, especially Japan, protect farmland near urban areas. In Britain, it is known as Green Belt. Most is used for agriculture, though much is owned by non-agricultural organizations. One day, the land may be needed again to grow food. But not in the foreseeable future. European and American agriculture is in chronic oversupply and the case for over-protecting farmers with subsidies is weaker in the vicinity of large towns than in remote districts. When one hears farmers claiming inalienable rights to fat subsidies and Trespassers Keep Out signs, one is reminded of the ferrymen and watermen who once transported people across Europe's rivers. They were fiercely opposed to bridge building, because it threatened their "historic rights' to charge for a service that was no longer needed.

In much of northwest Europe, the public already has rights over the unbuilt land in and around towns. They vary from country to country but include rights to control building development, rights of access and rights to protect "nature' (including scenic, hydrologic and biological resources). These rights should be codified by declaring New Commons and New Forests. As the Old Commons and the Old Forests were often taken by law, it would not be inappropriate to use statutory powers expressly for this purpose, albeit with a great deal of local diversity. These areas of public greenspace would be safe when busy but could be unsafe at other times. The general public would have rights of access, and the local public could have other rights, and duties, especially connected with food and fuel. "Public' ownership can take many forms: central government, municipalities, water suppliers, churches, colleges, and charitable trusts.

Unbounded space can take its physical character from the natural environment. Here are some of the possibilities:

Landform. Apart from life, topography is the greatest thing on earth. Yet in cities, we mostly bury it. Rivers are piped, hills buried, woods felled. The solution is to make topographic greenspace: hill space; valley space; river space; quarry space; beach space.

Ecology. It is desirable to have a good network of natural habitats to accommodate the plant and animal communities that are native to a locality. Near to where I live, it would be appropriate to have a heath, a marsh, a beechwood, an oakwood and a watermeadow.

Hydrology. Wet places, dry places, marshy places and water bodies are attractive and necessary.

Climate. Hot places, cold places, sheltered places, windy places and sunny places can each be attractive. Too many open space planners have regarded heat and cold as "problems' in need of a solution, as though there was some ideal of a perfect climate, like the perfect set of dentures. Rather, we should celebrate climatic diversity. Cities should have spaces that catch the strongest winds, the hottest sun, the most water, the heaviest shade and the hardest frost. By turns, all are welcome.

Fig 15.7 T.S. Eliot

Fig 15.6 Birkenhead Park in 1984

The New Forest