Yet again, research and writing for a chapter in my book that originally was historical and as I thought, non-controversial, has now become urgently relevant in the wake of the current crisis.
I’ve written (not finished!) a chapter on Victorian public parks, and contests over their use, particularly by political groups for meetings. I’ve got a hard drive full of photos of council parks committee minutes from various boroughs in England across the late 19th century and early 20th century.
At the time of researching, so far so historical. The relevant research was being done by Dan Hancox on the commercialisation of parks and their temporary closing off for big concerts and other ticketed events, where councils make a little money to the expense of local residents not able to enter their parks for a few weekends a year. Enclosure by privatisation is easy to recognise. (https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/jul/05/revealed-how-london-parks-are-partly-privatised-festivals-wireless-finsbury-park)
But now we have the threat that all public open spaces will be closed, just as the weather warms up, with the lock-down. Morally it’s a trickier issue. Of course, this may be the measure we need to prevent the spread of the virus and to enforce social distancing. Stay at home if you have a garden folks. But it has raised huge debate about the lack of access to public space among urban residents living in small flats with (as is increasingly common) not even a Juliet balcony to get any fresh air at all. The balancing of public health between preventing the spread and maintaining people’s physical and mental health by allowing them to exercise outside is very difficult to work out.
The issue has centred around Lambeth Council’s decision to close Brockwell Park.
It often seems to be the south London parks and Lambeth council that are the lightning conductors for these issues. Perhaps because of the highly urbanised nature of south London, and its gentrification southwards.
Will Jennings and others on Twitter raise the issue of what is a park and what is a common in these areas:
The south London commons are in somewhat an unusual position in that they are technically still urban commons, but because their ownership and management passed to the Metropolitan Board of Works in the later 19th Century (and then subsequently to the LCC and then to their respective borough councils), they are regulated more as public parks.
Lambeth Council byelaws: https://www.lambeth.gov.uk/sites/default/files/lsp-parks-open-spaces-byelaws.pdf
Survey of London history: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/architecture/sites/bartlett/files/49.5._parks_and_open_spaces_chapter.pdf
Parks, recreation grounds and other council-controlled public spaces have always been heavily regulated with regulations and bye-laws. That was part of the point of parks – they were former commons and open spaces that have been enclosed and regulated both legally by regulations and physically by railings and gates that are usually closed at night, and by park wardens monitoring public behaviour. Urban commons (which differ from rural commons) were often the product of the commons preservation societies’ campaigns from the 1860s onwards. Many were regulated by as many byelaws as parks. Access to open space in urban areas in the late 19th century was always about social control, of improving the morals and ‘civilising’ the behaviour of the population, particularly the working classes and poor who lived in overcrowded urban streets who needed the ‘lungs’ of the park as a respite from their polluted working lives.
update from a discussion on Twitter on whether London councils have the right to close commons:
Jonathan Healey jokingly raised the issue of restrictions on behaviour in public spaces made by clergy and local authorities in the early modern period:
This moral regulation continued well up to the 20th century. With the new public parks in the later 19th century, Sabbatarians and other religious were keen to prevent the population using them on Sundays, when they should be in church. Organised games (football, cricket) and music (e.g. brass bands on the bandstand) were banned in many public parks until well into the first decades of the 20th century. Debates raged in council parks committees and in the local newspapers about whether leisure activities should be allowed on Sundays, and only gradually were concessions made, for example allowing band concerts after 2pm, but then only playing classical music with no dance tunes allowed.
field and court games should be allowed on Sundays from 1pm in winter and 2pm in summer at such parks and open spaces as might be prescribed.LCC guide to public parks, 1924
There were no restrictions on access to public parks during the cholera pandemics, not least because it was still believed that disease spread in the air, so access to fresh air was seen as essential. The Boards of Health were more concerned with patrolling and inspecting other sites where particularly the poor and vagrants congregated or were confined – they set up inspections of lodging houses and backstreet pubs for example.
The restriction on use of public parks and commons for political meetings is another story I’ve related elsewhere and which will be the main focus of my chapter on ‘Railings’, and its most obvious expression was during the Hyde Park riots of 1866 when the crowd tore up the railings in protest at their exclusion.
A later debate about access to parks and commons was during both world wars. Some (though not as many as perceived) of the Victorian railings had been removed for the metal salvage effort during WWII, and much debate in the council parks’ committee minutes concerned whether there should be extra wardens employed to police the parks now that access was easier. Even for parks that retained their railings, some had to be left open at night because air raid shelters were constructed within them. This led to a large rise in juvenile delinquency and petty vandalism to for example the toilets or cricket pavilions recorded by the parks committees, and there was pressure on them to restrict or police them using the air raid wardens to prevent further criminal damage.
The town planning schemes and idealistic or indeed simply pragmatic reconstruction plans after both wars sought to maximise access to open green space for all residents (see my previous blog), although in already congested urban centres this was often done aiming at an average acreage per 1000 population rather than trying to make sure every residence was within easy reach of an open space. The space syntax of this accessibility is something I need to do more research on. With the selling off of playing fields, the renewed densification of urban centres as family houses have been split up into several flats, with front gardens turned into driveways and back gardens also sold off or only accessible to the ground floor flat, and especially with all the office block conversions allowed by the easing of planning regulations for permitted use, and new build flats only having those useless julienne balconies, the main issue debated today is that yet again, many people, including young professionals as well as people in lower income bands, have no access to any open space apart from their local parks.
Hazel Conway, People’s Parks: The Design and Development of Victorian Parks in Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1991)