The Greater London Regional Planning Committee
During the past 60 years, London has been subject to a series of innovatory open space plans. Some of their key features have been carried forward to the present day in modified form. Others have been abandoned. Taken as a group, the plans lack intellectual rigour. One has the impression that the open space sections of London’s planning documents have been written by enthusiasts who have taken up the subject for a short time, concentrated their attention on the most recent plan, reached certain conclusions, and then moved on to new fields of endeavour. This article seeks to discover why key ideas have been adopted or rejected, and to assess their value. The dominant concerns have been anti-urban: to establish a belt of open land outside the metropolis and to remedy a perceived deficiency of open space within the built-up area by reducing densities. Other issues concerning the use, quality, accessibility and interconnectedness of open space have appeared on the stage in supporting roles.
The legal basis for the acquisition and management of open space in London was provided by the Metropolitan Open Spaces Act 1877. The term ‘open space’ is significant. It probably came from the 1833 Select Committee on Public Walks which noted that ‘during the last half century a very great increase has taken place in the population of large towns and little or no provision has been made for Public Walks or Open Spaces, fitted to afford means of exercise or amusement to the middle or humbler classes’.’ The Open Spaces Act 1906 defined ‘open space’ as ‘any land, whether inclosed or not, on which there are no buildings or of which not more than one-twentieth part is covered with buildings, and the whole of the remainder is laid out as a garden or is used for purposes of recreation or lies waste and unoccupied’. The muddle began here.
Official open space planning commenced with Raymond Unwin’s Memorandum No. 1, which formed part of the First Report of the Greater London Regional Planning Committee, 1929.2 Unwin identified a deficiency of open space in London and drew upon the work of the National Playing Fields Association (NPFA) which, in turn, drew upon an article by George Pepler in the Town Planning Review for 1925. Pepler cited American authorities, studies of British towns, and a report from Britain’s Juvenile Organisations Committee, which saw playing fields as a means of combating juvenile delinquency. Pepler and the NPFA concluded that open space need should be expressed as ‘acres/l000’. Unwin recommended 2.83 ha (seven acres) per 1000, with private:public open space in the ratio of 3:4. It was assumed that amongst every 1000 people, 350 would want to play games. To obtain this quantity of space Unwin recommended a ‘green girdle’ round London for playing fields and recreation. It was not for agriculture, like the present Green Belt.
The NPFA believed that for every four acres of public open space there should also be ‘the odd acre per 1000 helping to meet the needs of quiet refreshment in pleasant places’ This led to the creation of ‘standard parks’ with most of the land laid to playing fields and a small area to ornamental planting. In the inter-war years there was ‘a rapid increase in public appreciation of the part which games can play not only in promoting health and physical well-being but also in moulding the character’ Since the committee of the NPFA was made up of dukes, marquesses, earls and lords, we can see the playing field initiative as social engineering. The aim was to improve the health and character of the humbler classes.
Fig. 3 ‘Come and join us: the
cover of the First Report of the
National Playing Fields Association