I went on my government mandated local exercise once a day to my local open space, which is some council owned playing fields. The ubiquity of this sort of open space – slightly scrubby grass fields, no fences or barriers apart from a raised mound around the perimeter to stop vehicles, no planting apart from a line of trees along the edge of the path.
In debate about the current imposition of restrictions on parks and city commons – here I’m thinking of the hundreds of flat-dwelling residents no longer able to descend on Victoria Park in Hackney or another city park – the focus has been on definable green spaces that can be closed off, notably parks with railings. But for many of the population, their nearest open green space is not a landscaped park or a National Park, but a playing field or a recreation ground – less definable, less manicured, less uniform, and more open.
As we know, the Victorians became obsessed with public parks as a form of improvement and to some extent social control as well as preservation of open space against intense urban density. Railings is a major theme of my new book’s chapters covering this period, symbolised by the crowd pulling up the railings of Hyde Park during the popular agitation of the 2nd Reform Bill in 1866.
In the early 20th century, by contrast, the main theme is of open space without railings. Though the parks movement was still lobbying councils for more formal parks, new types of recreation spaces developed. We see a shift from the Victorian railed park with gates closed at night, to open playing fields and recreation grounds, to inner city children’s playgrounds. Once large estate building and slum clearance went underway, there was a proliferation of even less defined open grassy spaces such as the small areas in between tower blocks and houses.
The push for more open space in the driven first by pressure and lobbying by the National Playing Fields Association, founded 1925, who became a powerful body in influencing planning decisions.
The move to ‘un-urbanising’ inner cities was further enabled by bombed out sites providing more opportunity (though inner city blitzed areas more often rebuilt upon or converted to car parks, outdoor and multi-storey) and by the optimism and vision of postwar reconstruction plans.
The NPFA proposed standard of 6 acres per 1000 people became a mantra and main target for councils developing town and city plans, and postwar reconstruction. It was technocratic as well as about caring about access to open space.
In some areas and among some associations and planners, the open space standard became a matter of civic pride to increase the proportion of acres per population.
New towns such as Stevenage could boast of planning for well over the acreage standard. Inner cities and industrial boroughs had more trouble, and had to either patch together small spaces which were never enough or extend commons on their outskirts. It would be useful to do a space syntax analysis of the inequalities of access to open space in and between inner cities, suburbia, London vs other cities, rural villages surrounded by privately owned land e.g farms and forest.
The selling off of playing fields from the 1980s onwards, coupled with the decline of large company’s social facilities for their workers which often included playing fields, and further urbanisation and suburbanisation, meant a decline in the ideal of the space standard.
Mike Huggins and Jack Williams, Sport and the English, 1918-1939: Between the Wars (Routledge 2006)
John Allan Patmore , Land and Leisure in England & Wales (Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1970)