In praise of the public park

14 December 2017

Avid readers of this blog will have noted a certain lack of enthusiasm for Victorian innovations in garden design. But some vestiges of the era are inescapably a brilliant thing. The concept of the public park, created to give urban dwellers access to edifying green space, is the embodiment of Victorian ideals at their best. We’d had a version of the park before the 1800s, but these were often extensions of hunting grounds, private pleasure gardens with the public allowed in only by permission of the owners. The concept of a truly public park, open to all and designed with this in mind, is something that has only been around for about 177 years or so. 

The first of these parks, created in Derby in 1840, was the legacy of a local textiles merchant who donated an 11 acre plot of land for the project and commissioned John Loudon - a leading botanist and garden designer - to form the masterplan. The entire object was to create a green space, a haven, for local people to escape the smog and chaos of their industrial reality. Since this moment, parks have been created around the country, of varying sizes and aesthetic merit but all with the expressed aim of providing outside space to those who might not otherwise have access. Behind all this is a belief that this access is not just a positive force in a human life, but a sanity-saving necessity.

One of the larger of these new public havens - Victoria Park in London - is the ideal example, not least because of its dedicatory name. It is set in the east end of the city, deliberately close to the homes of the vast ranks of workers who powered London’s industrial surge, those who might never have seen much further than their route to and from work (the same could be said of its current, more affluent inhabitants, but for very different reasons). Built between 1842 and 1846, on 218 acres of land purchased by the Crown Estate expressly for the purpose, it was set out by Sir James Pennethorne (a student of John Nash, creator of Regent’s Park) and has all the elements one would hope for in a truly Victorian park. A series of ponds, including what was once a bathing pond and a boating lake now home to the oldest model boat club in the world; a charming pagoda, pavilions, and not one but two dogs of Alcibiades (now replicas, the originals are hidden for fear of vandalism). There was even a Speakers’ Corner, where William Morris was a regular attraction in the latter part of the century. The park is still an important feature of life for a vast range of Londoners and, like parks across the city and the country, will be especially busy over the festive period when a post (or pre) lunch walk has become as woven in to tradition as mince pies and dodgy crackers.

The persistence of this nationwide passion for parks has defied the natural laws of land pricing, housing pressure and monetary neglect. There is a deep seated belief still (and crucially many layers of legal protection) that keeps the urban park as a key piece of the planning jigsaw and long may that continue. They are little green lungs, dotted around the country, sometimes linked by capillaries of road-lining trees, sometimes completely alone in the midst of an urban morass. But always appreciated by those for whom they provide even a momentary escape from concrete.

 - Lizzy Tyler