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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
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.
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.