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.


A flock of 600 sheep being led down Piccadilly at six o'clock in the morning, from Hyde Park to Green Park, London. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

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.

8 comments on “Why London’s Green Spaces Are Not All Equal”

  1. chris hughes says:

    One of the pleasures in life is arriving in London by train and gazing into all those back gardens – all totally different and individual, and thankfully not subject to legislation to make them all the same.

  2. snowy says:

    If anybody wishes to get deep into the subject, Sir Ebenezer Howard is a good place to start. Parts of his “Garden Cities of To-morrow” 1902 would be adopted into ‘Housing, Town Planning, &c. Act 1909’. This banned back to back houses and cellar dwellings amongst other ‘evils’. This was the springboard for ‘Garden Cities’, ‘New Towns’ and the design of ‘Metroland’.

    [The very keen might hazard James Silk Buckingham’s ‘National Evils and Practical Remedies: With the Plan of a Model Town’ 1849′]

  3. Jackie Hayles says:

    Golders Hill Park and The Hill; Hampstead Heath in general, with the wonderful Kenwood House, the Vale of Health and so many places to discover, never fails to delight. Barn Hill fields between Kingsbury and Wembley retain their semi-rural charms despite their location and so far have been left as green belt. There used to be a riding stables and a cattle farm in the fields too – both have long since disappeared.

  4. Roger says:

    Some years ago a Kensington[?] square banned ball games even by the communal owners. One of the collective owners was playing with his infant son using a cubic cloth “ball”. Another owner objected to this misuse of their collective garden. There were appeals and counter-appeals and eventually the Court of Appeal with full solemnity had to decide whether cubic cloth objects were balls within the meaning of the law.
    I can’t remember the outcome, but the case alone was entertaining enough.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    We have events in Stanley Park – concerts and other gatherings but the place is so big it doesn’t interfere with other people’s enjoyment much. I was quite startled to discover what I guess were hospitality tents in the big French public garden in Brussels.
    It’s funny but the idea of a locked garden in the middle of a street doesn’t bother me. People walking or driving by can still see the trees and plants and breathe the modulated air so they get some free benefit. I assume there is an annual levy for the upkeep of those private gardens. If a home owner divides the house to create a flat could s/he provide a key to the tenant? who would then have to pay a pro rated amount of the gardening levy I imagine. Hmmmm, all sorts of possibilities.

  6. Vivienne says:

    I was told on an Open House visit- up on top of the Wellington memorial- that Hyde Park was bigger than Monaco, which I find really pleasing. Glad there is a move to retain front gardens from total paving| just like Chris Hughes looking at gardens from the trains, these can be very revealing about the owners.

  7. admin says:

    The Hyde Park/Monaco thing might just be true – the park certainly has more culture.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    I was reading some English newspapers from the early 1800s and came across a marvelous little tale. (It’s wonderful what is on-line these days) A herd of bullocks was being driven up the “City-road” (?) when the lead animal spotted a lady in a red shawl walking along the pavement and took off after her. (I doubt it was the shawl since animals don’t see colour much). The lady realised her danger before it became “too imminent” and ran for a nearby glass and china shop (Mr. Berry’s at Featherstone St.) She rushed through the shop and collapsed in the rear parlour (every shop has a parlour, of course). The bullock was right behind and they were only able to slam the parlour door in its face. The animal turned itself around and “apparently picking its way amongst the plates, pans, and dishes, walked back again into the street, without the fracture of anything.” So much for the bull in a china shop, although this was admittedly something less than a bull. This was reported in The Lady’s Newspaper for 20 March 1847. I always wondered how bulls would get into china shops and now I know.

Comments are closed.