Why London’s Green Spaces Are Not All Equal
London remains the most verdant city of its size in the world. Its vast plane trees absorb C02 and every neighbourhood, no matter how small, has some kind of greenery in it. We have more open space than many in the countryside because much rural land is now in private hands. But London’s greenery is complicated; parks are not gardens, and gardens are not squares. There are wild cemeteries, woodlands, ancient forests, secret gardens, formal parks, crescents, polygons, circuses, heaths and commons, all different. That’s without adding in the English person’s right to have a back garden. And unsurprisingly, it turns out that all these spaces were created and separated by our old friend the English class system.
Green spaces cover 40 percent of Greater London. There are over 250 parks and countless squares, all with different rules, all randomly shaped. So, what’s what? Gardens are either private land attached to one’s flat or house, or communal green spaces usually used by the residents of the street in which they were built. These were created by wealthy middle class urbanites, the idea being to keep out the ‘vulgar, rude populace’ and provide pleasant places where like could meet like, so that the social classes would not have to mix.
In times when ladies of gentility could not parade unescorted, communal gardens, squares and crescents provided safe havens where they might sit and read and not be approached by rough types. They helped young ladies meet appropriate men from their class, and came with locks and keys – and many remain under the guardianship of house owners to this day.
Public squares were based on Italian piazzas in the mid-17th century, but instead of being bare stone parade grounds they were filled with planted borders, lawns and trees. Parks were for the general use of all, and some, like Victoria Park in London’s East End, were constructed to keep out the ‘ill humours’ of disease, for it was believed that diseases floated in germ-laden air, and the parks might provide a barrier to protect the moneyed classes from the poor, who were frequently sick because they had many babies and lived in low (ie. damp) ground. At the bottom of this list were the pleasure gardens, which were more like funfairs, with concert halls, skating rinks, cafes and beer halls which turned rowdy and licentious after dark.
Yet despite the general gentility of parks and gardens, human nature surfaced and even the nicest areas were used for romantic liaisons or simply for sex. In Samuel Pepys’s time Green Park was famously littered with copulating couples, and until its recent makeover Russell Square was rife with sexual goings-on after dark.
James I and Charles I both preserved the rights of citizens to enjoy access to open space, and this has become part of our unwritten constitution. Royal proclamations and acts of parliament further enshrined the right to greenery. In 1603 there was another purpose added; to control the appearance of buildings so that they would add magnificence, a right that has been largely shoved aside now by greedy developers. Many new spaces are privately owned, but to some extent they always were.
In the last ten years many of London’s squares have undergone massive transformations. They’ve been recognised for their importance and have been refurbished across the city. Once they were places where cattle was pastured and clothes were hung to dry. Photographs of Soho Square between the world wars show a wild uncultivated rural spot, as yet unencumbered by plastic hospitality tents for Coke Zero or 02. Hyde Park still had grazing rights for sheep, and the idea of renting out chunks for Winter Wonderlands (ie. retail space) and rock concerts would have been unthinkable, partly because parks were ‘improving’ and had concerts of popular classics at lunchtimes. This is why concerts are still held in Green Park.
Of all the green spaces, the squares were seen as extensions of the typical London house; that is to say they were rather overly tidy and domesticated, bland clipped places like the Ladbroke Estate in Kensington, designed so that ‘children can be dropped into them like goldfish into a goldfish bowl’. It was only in back gardens that Londoners became truly untidy, constructing fish ponds and piling junk, building sheds and half-finished rockeries. These gardens were somewhere to escape to and have a smoke. Many communal gardens are invisible to the casual passer-by, but many now face a new challenge; overshadowing by building extensions which plunge them into shadow. Near me, new building plans near Caledonian Road are darkening communal gardens – but what is sunshine worth?
Pleasingly, new green spaces keep appearing; the latest is in King’s Cross, an undulating meadow with an open-air swimming pool. The London public is fiercely protective of its grass, and rightly so.