The lat­est re­views and in­ter­views

The mu­nic­i­pal park had its ori­gins in the game parks of medieval no­bles and roy­als, and, as Alan­nah Hop­kin dis­cov­ers, were very much de­signed to im­prove the lives of or­di­nary peo­ple

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Inside -

IHAVE al­ways hated parks, and af­ter read­ing this lively ac­count of their place in so­cial his­tory, I un­der­stand why. I grew up in south Lon­don in the 1950s and ’60s, when English mu­nic­i­pal parks were par­tic­u­larly dull and joy­less. Parks were gloomy places, with con­crete paths, gar­ish flower beds, and nu­mer­ous “keep off the grass” signs. Usu­ally the first thing you en­coun­tered was a large board with a list of rules and reg­u­la­tions: Thou Shalt Not.

The play­grounds had heavy, un­com­fort­able but van­dal-proof metal swings and round­abouts, mostly un­painted. There was al­ways the threat of big­ger chil­dren, who would bully you if you were not ac­com­pa­nied by an adult, while the benches were full of sad older peo­ple smok­ing cig­a­rettes and star­ing straight ahead, as no­body talked to strangers. Chil­dren es­pe­cially were warned against talk­ing to strangers, as they were all seen as po­ten­tial child mo­lesters.

As teenagers, parks be­came slightly more at­trac­tive, at least in the sum­mer, when you could hire af­ford­able ten­nis courts for flir­ta­tious mixed dou­bles, or en­joy the spec­ta­cle and show of the huge out­door swim­ming pools known as li­dos, with wa­ter­slides, div­ing boards and sun­bathing ar­eas, which were ac­ces­si­ble for only a few pence.

Travis Elborough’s sense of hu­mour brings a wel­come lev­ity to this large and com­plex topic. But his ap­proach is re­lent­lessly An­glo-cen­tric, with hardly a men­tion of Scot­land and Wales, and none at all of Ire­land. There is also a ten­dency to over­load the text with de­tail, which could eas­ily have been rec­ti­fied. How­ever, most of the time he is en­ter­tain­ing, for ex­am­ple with his wry, pun­ning chap­ter ti­tles.

In the open­ing chap­ter, ‘Killing Fields and Com­mon Lands’, he ex­plains that the word “park” is de­rived from the Old French “parc”, de­fined as “an en­closed pre­serve for beasts of the chase”. By en­clos­ing the land and stock­ing it with man­aged herds, it be­came eas­ier and even plea­sur­able for aris­to­crats to hunt deer, boars and so on for the ta­ble. The fash­ion for pri­vate game parks caught on quickly and by the year 1300 there were some 3,200 game parks in Bri­tain. This of course meant that land­less peas­ants were ex­cluded from the best land. Al­ready the com­mon land, on which the poorer peo­ple had the all-im­por­tant right to graze their beasts, was dis­ap­pear­ing.

Lon­don’s Hyde Park orig­i­nated as a pri­vate game park, sup­ply­ing the royal ta­ble, and its trans­for­ma­tion over the cen­turies into a much-loved pub­lic open space is typ­i­cal of the his­tory of many of Eng­land’s older parks.

This kind of large park, which came to in­clude foun­tains and dec­o­ra­tive gar­dens and spe­cially de­signed av­enues, where ladies could walk or drive in car­riages with­out hav­ing catch sight of their less for­tu­nate, of­ten im­pov­er­ished neigh­bours, be­came in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar in the 17th and 18th cen­turies. The Sun King Louis XIV’s ex­trav­a­gant park at Ver­sailles was the high point of this trend. Some 36,000 work­ers toiled for over 20 years to com­plete the 117-acre park, which in­cluded a Grand Canal-style wa­ter fea­ture pop­u­lated by Vene­tian gon­do­liers.

Ver­sailles is some­times de­scribed as the world’s first theme park, and Elborough links it with the com­mer­cial plea­sure gar­dens of 18th-cen­tury Lon­don, the most fa­mous be­ing Vaux­hall. Th­ese were com­mer­cial en­ter­prises for ur­ban dwellers seek­ing open-air en­ter­tain­ment, rather than green open spa­ces. The wealthy and the fash­ion­able mixed with any­one who could af­ford the en­trance fee. From the be­gin­ning th­ese plea­sure gar­dens were strongly as­so­ci­ated with sex; the re­spectable vis­i­tors en­joyed the thrill of wit­ness­ing pros­ti­tutes ply­ing their trade, with­out com­pro­mis­ing their own rep­u­ta­tion.

The en­clo­sures of the 18th-cen­tury took more com­mon land away from the peo­ple, start­ing the mi­gra­tion to ci­ties which be­came a fea­ture of 19th-cen­tury Bri­tain. It took an Ir­ish­man, Oliver Gold­smith, to

high­light the ef­fect of the en­clo­sure of pre­vi­ously ac­ces­si­ble land for pri­vate use by “the man of wealth and pride” in his fa­mous 1770 poem, The De­serted Vil­lage.

This as­so­ci­a­tion of parks with aris­to­cratic ex­ploita­tion of land that should by rights have be­longed to the peo­ple, as well as the sub­se­quent as­so­ci­a­tion of parks with low moral stan­dards, ex­plains why, up un­til the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury, mu­nic­i­pal parks were com­pletely un­known in the USA.

Cen­tral Park’s suc­cess made pub­lic parks all the rage, with ci­ties across the con­ti­nent com­pet­ing to out-park one an­other. In one of the most in­ter­est­ing chap­ters, ‘Cen­tral Park­ing’, Elborough ex­plains how a chance visit to Birken­head, across the Mersey from Liver­pool by Fred­er­ick Law Olm­sted, an Amer­i­can travel writer, led to the de­sign of Man­hat­tan’s Cen­tral Park.

Olm­sted was a gen­tle­man farmer from Staten Is­land, who aban­doned his farm to take a walk­ing tour of Eng­land, which he de­scribed in a pop­u­lar travel book. On a side-trip to Birken­head, a baker who sold them some buns in­sisted they visit the town’s new­ly­opened 226-acre park, which had taken 1,000 men over three years to build. Olm­sted was im­pressed by the salu­bri­ous coun­try-style pub­lic park with lake and hillocks that had been built on waste ground in the midst of a new city, free and open to all, “for­ever the peo­ple’s own”. When New York’s Cen­tral Park was un­der con­struc­tion he was in­vited to ap­ply for the job of pro­ject su­per­vi­sor.

Cen­tral Park’s even­tual de­sign, with its wooded hill­sides, lake and rolling mead­ows is based on what Olm­stead had seen in Birken­head. Cen­tral Park in­spired a wave of Amer­i­can park build­ing, and soon, writes Elborough, “No Amer­i­can city wor­thy of the name was with­out its mu­nic­i­pal park — and ar­guably all of it thanks to a tip-off from a baker in Birken­head”.

From the 19th cen­tury on, the his­tory of Eng­land’s parks runs par­al­lel to the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion, the con­se­quent growth of the work­ing class and the ap­palling liv­ing con­di­tions that pre­vailed. Elborough pro­duces many amus­ing anec­dotes about idio­syn­cratic de­sign fea­tures — an im­i­ta­tion Khy­ber Pass, over­sized swan-shaped ped­alo boats, and life-sized replica di­nosaurs — and im­pres­sive sta­tis­tics — Vic­to­ria Park in Lon­don had a 200ft-long pool in its lido that could ac­com­mo­date 1,000 peo­ple, there were 725 pub­lic ten­nis courts in Lon­don by 1924, 40,000 bed­ding plants were set in Hyde Park in 1859, and so on.

But there is no escaping the fact that mu­nic­i­pal parks were a des­per­ate at­tempt to im­prove the lives of peo­ple who were work­ing long hours for very lit­tle pay, eat­ing a poor diet, breath­ing pol­luted air and liv­ing in sub-stan­dard con­di­tions. Bread and cir­cuses, in other words, but town parks were poor com­pen­sa­tion for such a life. The pa­tri­ar­chal rules for­bid­ding much of what peo­ple would like to do there — in­clud­ing group pic­nics, cy­cling, roller skat­ing, kite fly­ing, mu­sic mak­ing and drink­ing al­co­hol — added to the in­sult.

The parks that I hated so much were soon to be re­placed by more com­mu­nity-led mod­els, with brightly-painted ad­ven­ture play­grounds, wild gar­dens, al­lot­ments, High Line-style lin­ear green­ways and ur­ban farms, many funded by the UK’s Lot­tery Fund. Changes in leisure habits, with a trip to the shop­ping mall be­ing a more at­trac­tive op­tion for many than a walk in the park, has led to a ma­jor re­think of the whole con­cept of park. Tra­di­tional town parks of­fer­ing free ac­cess to all com­ers, are un­der threat from prop­erty de­vel­op­ers on the one hand, and pub­lic ap­a­thy on the other.

Times are chang­ing, and per­haps it is not all bad to reap­praise the not-very-well-loved in­sti­tu­tion that is — or was — the mu­nic­i­pal park.

Pic­ture: John Still­well/PA

A woman walks her dogs through Hyde Park in cen­tral Lon­don; Hyde Park orig­i­nated as a pri­vate game park, sup­ply­ing the royal ta­ble, and its trans­for­ma­tion over the cen­turies into a much-loved pub­lic open space is typ­i­cal of the his­tory of many of Eng­land’s older parks.

A Walk in the Park — The Life and Times of a Peo­ple’s In­sti­tu­tion Travis Elborough Vin­tage, £10.99

A chance visit to Birken­head, across the Mersey from Liver­pool by Fred­er­ick Law Olm­sted, an Amer­i­can travel writer, led to the de­sign of Man­hat­tan’s Cen­tral Park.

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