It’s not easy staying green…
What is the future for our parks? A new book by Travis Elborough suggests they will go the same way as libraries
22 September, 2017 — By Peter Gruner
Travis Elborough: ‘Central London is on the brink of becoming ‘Dubai-on-Thames’’
FROM the wilds of Hampstead Heath and breathtaking views of Primrose Hill to the avenues of mature trees in Finsbury Park, our beloved public open spaces – once the private preserve of the very rich – could today be facing new threats.
London is still one of the greenest cities in the world, according to author Travis Elborough in his timely new book, A Walk In The Park. But he warns that cash-strapped local councils are facing unprecedented pressure to allow building on or near green spaces by property-hungry developers.
But aren’t our open spaces protected by law?
It’s dangerous to become complacent. Elborough points out that already another important local public asset is being removed from our lives. At least 324 public libraries have closed in the UK since 2010 or are being run by volunteers.
“Central London is on the brink of becoming ‘Dubai-on-Thames’,” he said in an interview this week. “It’s a city unaffordable for most of us, of unoccupied towers, and with flats serving as safety deposit boxes in the sky. There’s a worrying sense that vast areas of parkscape could quite easily slip into becoming, once again, the great preserves of the rich.”
Our benevolent Victorian forebears had to fight to establish many of the public parks we take so much for granted.
It was Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust, who in the 19th century helped save Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields from being built on. She campaigned for the purchase of the land to allow the public free access, arguing that Londoners needed places that would allow them to “rise above the smoke, to feel a refreshing air for a little time and to see the sun setting in coloured glory which abounds so in the Earth God Made”.
Thanks to her and colleagues like William Morris, legislation such as the Metropolitan Commons Act 1866 and the Commons Act 1876 was passed, ensuring that no further commons were to be lost in London, though the battle continued outside the capital.
In 1875 Octavia also sought to oppose development of a group of fields, known then as Swiss Cottage Common. A district of the Parish of Hampstead, they were named after The Swiss Tavern (est 1804). She appealed for funds to purchase the fields but was unsuccessful and traffic-clogged Swiss Cottage, as we know it today, was born.
Parliament Hill’s lido is one of a few still thriving and surviving in the capital. A report back in 1968 suggested that outdoor pools were “outdated” and less efficient than the indoor variety.
Elborough writes: “These were judged better suited to a nation feeling its way towards central heating and double glazing and just dipping its toe into package deals in warmer waters of the Mediterranean.” In the decade from 1976 eight London lidos would close.
Fortunately, Hampstead and Highgate still has its three swimming lakes. The men’s lake was in such disrepair in the early 1980s and its waters were so shallow that a 10-metre diving board had to be removed to prevent acrobatic bathers from injuring themselves.
Popular wildlife parks like Camley Street at King’s Cross and Gillespie Park at Highbury get a mention in the book. In the case of Gillespie Park, environmentally minded residents, joined by new Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn, fought a pitched battle against developers to turn a former railway siding into a nature garden. In 1991 its lush grasslands were enticing enough for the only common orchid in the borough to appear.
Regent’s Park, it should be remembered, was once a private estate earning cash for the Crown. The public was first allowed access in 1835 but only for two days a week.
There are an estimated 27,000 parks in the UK with around 37 million regular users. With council budgets shrinking by 27 per cent since 2010 under austerity measures, Elborough says parks are at a “tipping point” of decline. Across the country 92 per cent of all park budgets have been cut.
For the capital, at least, one ray of hope for protection of green spaces is an idea to declare the whole of London a National Park.
Elborough used to live Tufnell Park and worked at Waterstones bookshop at Islington Green. Today he’s a Stoke Newington resident and a regular visitor to Victoria Park in Hackney.
• A Walk In The Park. By Travis Elborough, Jonathan Cape, £10.99