Great Britain

Sanctuary in the city: how urban parks saved our summer

As lockdown eased, green spaces nationwide began to throng with crowds, drinking, picnicking and ordering pizza to be delivered to specific park benches. Tons of rubbish piled up and councils struggled to cope. But then there was an unexpected upside. “People started to do their own thing, cleaning up with bin bags and litter- pickers bought off eBay,” says Paul Rabbitts, head of parks at Watford borough council. Despair at the deluge of litter had galvanised people to get out and do their bit, sometimes bagging up rubbish before overwhelmed local authorities managed to get to it. “There is a sense of ownership,” says Rabbitts. “Having rediscovered parks, people are fearful of losing or spoiling them.”

Across Britain, parks have offered millions of people respite from the coronavirus crisis – a breathing space amid infection anxieties, crowded flats, home-schooling and job insecurities. With other venues closed, people turned to the nation’s 27,000 urban green spaces, from manicured landscapes to patchy neighbourhood parks and playing fields.

“It has been amazing,” says David Jamieson, parks manager at Edinburgh city council. “Parks have become living rooms, with people bringing chairs and sitting around. There has been real love – if that’s not too strong a word – for these public spaces and we’ve never received so many compliments and thanks for the work we do.”

The surge in use created greater interest in previously overlooked green spaces, often located right under people’s noses. Park keepers noticed an uptick in calls and emails about the need to mend footpaths, fix signage and tend to worn facilities.

As the parks filled with joggers, cyclists and fitness classes, the benefits became apparent. “It’s been important for keeping a good mood and trying to stay free of anxiety,” says Helen Nickols, in Springfield Park, northeast London, on a recent Friday with her four-year-old son. “The park gives me mental space, the chance to reflect and blow off steam. I feel I can manage things better.” Peaceful and picturesque, Springfield Park nestles along the River Lea in the borough of Hackney, with a duck pond, tennis courts, shady trees and stunning views of the city.

Historians think we are currently using parks in the manner originally intended. The Victorians, who first established parks and cast them as “urban lungs”, viewed these green spots as “a key part of the infrastructure of any city or town, just as important as libraries, museums, roads and drainage systems,” says Jenifer White, national landscape advisor at Historic England.

The idea was for “rational recreation” in nature, to mitigate the health issues that came with industrialisation. But it was also a way of regulating public behaviour, says Abigail Gilmore, a lecturer in cultural policy at Manchester University who is currently writing a book on parks as cultural spaces. “There was a hope that the working classes would be encouraged into places where they could be seen and weren’t doing things that were disapproved of, such as gambling or drinking.”

Wanting to protect their financial interests, Victorian reformers, often factory and industry owners, sought to quell potential unruliness that could spill into unrest. Through the 1880s, city parks – often gifted by landed aristocrats – filled with the features we still see today: bandstands, bowling greens, tennis courts, ponds and boating lakes. Such amenities were intended to keep working people in parks, busy with the self-improving activities that the upper classes deemed worthy pursuits.

This genesis during the industrial period explains why some of Britain’s grandest parks are in northern cities, such as Manchester, Leeds and Salford. Among favourites cited by park enthusiasts are Saltwell Park in Gateshead, Liverpool’s Sefton Park and Sheffield Botanical Gardens. Derby Arboretum and Birkenhead Park were both inspirations for New York’s Central Park and vie for first UK park status. “It depends how you count it,” says Sarah Webster, community parks officer at Derby city council, explaining that academic papers have been written on the subject (one of which concludes the parks should agree to differ).

Some particulars of the coronavirus crisis have helped forge our reclamation of urban green spaces. With car parks closed, there has been a palpable respite from noise and traffic fumes around parks. Meanwhile, lockdown restrictions left many councils unable to carry out regular maintenance work, so parks have grown untamed, with long grass, sprawling hedges and weedy flowerbeds attracting more wildlife than usual. Some aspects of this newfound sense of ownership have not been universally welcomed: some park keepers say rowdy late-night parties caught them off guard. Paul Rabbitts in Watford recounts one recent Sunday evening when a DJ set up decks at the bandstand which, while in keeping with the spirit of this iconic structure, was nonetheless not well received by nearby residents trying to sleep. Rabbitts explains that in their heyday, bandstand musicians would draw crowds of tens of thousands – not unlike today’s superstar DJs.

But while makeshift music has sounded across green spaces, the ticketed festivals and events that often close off stretches of parkland during summer months are noticeably missing. The trend in recent years for councils facing slashed budgets has seen them hiring out green spaces for commercial events as a funding stream. “There is a danger that parks become cash cows. Used as assets rather than amenities and services, they become commodities exploited for financial value,” says Andrew Smith at Westminster University’s school of architecture and cities, who is researching commercial events in public parks.

Smith says that the cancellation of these events because of the virus may be another factor in our deepening relationship with parks. Prior to the pandemic, he explains, people would often report that they would not bother going to their local park because they expected it to be fenced off and restricted for use as a festival venue. But with festivals not happening and cafés and other visitor attractions (until recently, at least) shut down, “We are engaging with a much more pared-down version of parks and have been surprised by how enjoyable it is.”

However, in the wake of the pandemic, local authorities are facing even stronger budgetary issues and the worry is that parks will become ever-more commercialised, rendering these landscapes less inclusive or accessible precisely at the time we value them most. Even before the outbreak of Covid-19, parks budgets were facing brutal cuts – around 40% on average – and with decimated staff numbers, access to parks nationwide was already far from ideal. “We have a huge problem in this country with inequity of park provision, especially out of London,” says Katy Layton-Jones, a cultural historian at Leicester University. Pre-pandemic, she says, this patchy distribution may have been partially concealed by car use and bus services.

“It has really become apparent in the past few months,” she says, “that we do not supply people with parks in a logical, fair or equal way at all.”

Parks are not statutory services so there is no impetus for local or national governments to provide them. The National Lottery Heritage Fund has in recent years helped spruce up some parks, but funding often ends up in well-heeled areas where residents have the means to push and petition. Historians and park managers alike hope the surge in appreciation will translate into pressure for support from central government. “This is what we are trying to tell politicians,” says Rabbitts. “Parks are fab places to be, they are valuable to communities. But they don’t look after themselves.”

As more indoor social venues reopen, people still seem content to congregate in parks, finding a sense of community in public spaces that feel safer, as well as more accessible to the vulnerable. What’s being reclaimed is the sense of open public spaces enjoyed without the mediation of a paid-for event or experience. These green spaces have had a levelling effect and they now hold a special place in the midst of a pandemic experienced so intensely and universally, but in starkly different ways.

For mother-of-two Jasmine Telesford, sitting in London’s Springfield Park one morning, the sharing of public greens, with conversation now flowing between strangers, has been paramount. “It tells me that humanity is still alive,” she says.

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