All human life is there and probably even some wildlife


I have always liked parks where ever I have lived, public or otherwise, once I got away from the south coast where I grew up and where there were only recreation grounds. When I lived in London as a student, they were places to stretch your legs and get away from traffic while having a break from lectures. My college, Chelsea, was on Manresa Road, just off the Kings Road, and so I would walk down Oakley Street and across Albert Bridge to get to Battersea Park next to the Thames (1). I could sit and watch lawn bowls there, enjoying the strategy played out at each end, and went boating on the lake. The Royal Parks like Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens etc. were much grander, if impersonal – the smaller ones were better. Sunday mornings would be Regents Park and kicking a ball around with friends who were at other colleges in London, but it was really the free bar snacks at the pub on Great Portland Street that were the draw. The biochemistry building, when I moved on to Oxford for graduate studies, was right next to University Parks where I could watch the University team play cricket against understrength county sides (2,3). The Parks were bought by the University from Merton College in the 1850s and laid out as a Park for sports and recreational purposes in 1864. Merton was my college and, like many of the older Oxford colleges, owns a lot of land and buildings. I would pick up a punt at the Merton boat house and punt up the River Cherwell that runs along edge of the Park and under Rainbow Bridge. I fell in a lot when the punt pole got stuck in the river bed mud - you have to remember to twist the pole to release it at the end of each push. I played croquet on a lawn that was inside college grounds (4) and below Merton stretches Christ Church Meadow down to the River Thames, or Isis as it is called there. It is owned by Christ Church College which allows permissive access, except of course when it gets flooded (5,6). The college boat houses are there on the Isis, bringing crowds down to watch rowing during the four days of bump racing of Torpids and Eights Week. For longer walks, we would stroll up through the City Council owned Port Meadow by the side of the Thames, a common that most spectacularly flooded in winter (7). After a year living in the city centre I moved out to Headington where the City Council’s Shotover Country Park was just over a mile away, and we would walk amongst its hillslope woodland with ponds and wetlands (8).

The unconscious influence of scenery

My first job was at ICI Pharmaceuticals in Alderley Park near Alderley Edge in Cheshire. The research laboratories were set next to Radnor Mere, enlarged during the 17th century to become a mill pond, in the 140ha of parkland that used to part of the Earl of Stanley’s estate until ICI bought it in 1950 (9). A post lunch walk along the mere could be hazardous when geese were protecting young. I lived in nearby Macclesfield, and used to play the pitch and putt course in South Park that had some pretty exciting pitches (10,11). It was originally part of a large country house estate called Ryles Park, but was opened as an urban park in 1922, and is now owned by East Cheshire Council. I watched Cheshire Clog Dancing there during a Wakes Week Fair, the dancers stamping on a temporary boarded floor laid down on the grass. Moving to America, I worked in the Hershey Medical Center, the Pennsylvania State University’s College of Medicine and teaching hospital (12). Hershey is a relatively small township, but is remarkable because of the success of the original chocolate factory there, and the company’s funding in the township that included the medical centre, a residential school for disadvantaged children based on farmsteads, theme park, sports stadium, ice hockey stadium, zoo, conference centre, and the splendid Italianate and Spanish style Hershey Hotel that looks down on Hershey Gardens, the arboretum and botanical gardens that I would walk after brunch on a Sunday at the hotel (13). I can’t say I knew anything about wilderness when I lived in Hershey, there is none in Pennsylvania, only state hunting grounds (which I never set foot in) state parks, and a few National Recreation Areas like the Blue Marsh Lake that I went to (14-16).

I bring away from America, memories of the stunning experience of a sunny Sunday morning running around Central Park in New York City – all human life is there and probably even some wildlife. It’s a massive area in the centre of a major city that was landscaped as a public park to include woodlands, meandering streams, and rockwork arranged to include naturalistic caves, grottos, and cascades (17). On July 21, 1853, the New York State Legislature enacted into law the setting aside of the land as a result of many socially conscious reformers arguing that the creation of a great public park would improve public health and contribute greatly to the formation of a civil society. The winning “Greensward” design of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had large expanses of natural beauty that would demonstrate the antithesis of urban conditions. The aim was to have as completely as possible a naturalistic landscape, designed to shut out the urban environment and provide the elements of a rural setting as an “unconscious influence of scenery” that Olmsted felt met the psychological and social needs of residents of the city (17,18,). It was the beginning of the urban park movement in America, thought to be one of the great hallmarks of democracy of nineteenth-century America. A few years later, Olmsted would be turning his thoughts to a nascent National Park in the Yosemite Valley, his plan for the Valley emphasising the freedoms of being able to experience nature as a fundamental entitlement of all Americans, a democratisation of wild nature (19,20). His sons would later prepare a planning study for safeguarding the natural values of Rock Creek Park, an wild, urban park that runs north from the edge of downtown Washington (21,22) The Central Park Conservancy launched Forever Green in 2016 to promote a long-term vision for the entire Park, with restoration having begun of North Woods and The Ramble based on the original vision of the Central Park designers (23).

That link between the physical and psychological health of urban dwellers with their opportunity for recreation that shut out the urban environment was also to be the motivation for the Victorian park movement in Britain, but it was a speech in Parliament before the beginning of her reign that set it off. I noted before that Robert Slaney MP spoke during a debate in the House of Commons in February 1833 on Public Health (24,25). He put forward a motion that was agreed - “That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the best means of securing open spaces in the immediate vicinity of populous towns, as public walks calculated to promote the health and comfort of the inhabitants" and a Committee was appointed. The “public walks” were to be respite to the toiling, manual labour of urban manufacturing, to “promote the health and morality of the people” while at the same time discouraging the “working class” from “recourse to pernicious practices”. Slaney was aware that there was likely to be apprehension at the cost of providing public walks that could be a deterrent, but he averred that it “would cost little, for example, to have a space like that beautiful walk Christchurch Meadows”. I am sure, given the likelihood that many of the MPs he was addressing had been students at Oxford, that this example of an open space was a good one to connect to in their minds with what he proposed, albeit that the location of Christchurch Meadows does not really serve an urban working population. (Slaney went to Cambridge, his father to Oxford, but he was a barrister on the Oxford circuit (26)). Well, let’s look past the paternalism and instead focus on the seeming concern for public health.

Improvements in the morals and integrity of urban inhabitants

I’ve had a chance now to look at the Select Committee Report on Public Walks, which unfortunately is not freely available (27). The Committee heard evidence over March 1833 from those representing the major towns (now cities) of the North and Midlands, along with London and Bristol. It sought evidence from each witness on population, had it increased over recent decades, whether it was engaged in trade or commerce, and if there were any public walks or open spaces in the vicinity of the city. The evidence for Bradford, my nearest city, was given by its MP, Ellis Cunliffe Lister. He said the population was 77,000 (now 534,300) noting that it had increased more so than any other in town England except Brighton. Its people, including women and children, were engaged in manufacturing cloth, and were congregated together in large numbers working many hours in the day. Asked whether there were any public walks, or parks, or open spaces to which the “middle and humbler classes” can resort to walk on their Sunday evenings, Lister replied there were only footpaths across fields, and causeways (unmade paths) along the sides of roads. Prompted, Lister confirmed that trespass often resulted from such a large population using those footpaths, and damage done to the fields. He wasn’t able to identify any open space that would be a real opportunity to develop public walks other than a footpath that ran by the side of the river that might be widened and made into a public walk. He said that this could be done at very little expense, but that there were no public funds that he knew of that could be used for such a purpose. In relation to that river, he was asked if there was any public bathing-place reserved for the “humbler inhabitants” on its banks, Lister replying none that was reserved, but that there was a very good place where they do go to bathe. Lister was asked whether there would be an inclination on the part of the wealthier inhabitants or proprietors of the vicinity of Bradford, to contribute land, either by dedication or for sale, for the purpose of forming a public walk. He said he wasn’t able to answer that question “at present”, but I will come back to that.

The Committee saw a number of points had been established by the evidence: that there had been a very great increase over the preceding half century in the population of large towns, the increase predominantly being in people, and many of their children, working in manufacturing or mechanical employment; that the urban spread of building development during that same period had taken up much of the open space in the towns, leaving little or no provision for public walks; and that provision of public walks would be conducive to the health and contentment of the towns people. As a sign of the paternalism, the structures of power and wealth at that time, there were also considered to be benefits arising from improvements in the morals and integrity of urban inhabitants. Thus the Committee noted the “advantages which the Public Walks (properly regulated and open to the middle and humbler classes) give to the improvement in the cleanliness, neatness and personal appearance of those who frequent them. A man walking out with his family among his neighbours of different ranks, will naturally be desirous to be properly clothed, and that his Wife and Children should be so also; but this desire duly directed and controlled, is found by experience to be of the most powerful effect in promoting Civilization, and exciting Industry”. The assertion was that these public walks would divert the humble classes from the “drinking-shops, where, in short-lived excitement they may forget their toil, but where they waste the means of their families, and too often destroy their health” and that it would “wean them from low and debasing pleasures. Great complaint is made of drinking-houses, dog fights, and boxing matches, yet, unless some opportunity for other recreation is afforded to workmen, they are driven to such pursuits. The spring to industry which occasional relaxation gives, seems quite as necessary to the poor - as to the rich”. I just don’t see this prejudice that the workers were feckless and their labour impinged by that, is in any way a parallel to the seemingly honourable motives of Olmsted in seeing Central Park as a means for social progress.

A few suggestions were made as to the means of effecting public walks, such as removing any legal difficulties for the transfer of lands; pointing out sources from where the necessary funding could be raised, including a small payment for admission, voluntary subscription, or by way of rates; the use of any Crown Lands nearby; legislation for new canals and roads to ensure that space was left on at least one side “for a broad and ample Walk, with two rows of Trees, and room for Seats”; and the necessity of forming public bathing places. The Report would have little impact, and it was not until the Public Health Act of 1848, which was principally about combatting cholera outbreaks through provision of sewers, refuse removal, and clean drinking water, that Boards of Health would be established that could make provisions for public walks (s. 74 in (28)) - “And be it enacted, That the Local Board of Health, with the Approval of the said General Board, may provide, maintain, lay out, plant, and improve Premises for the Purpose of being used as public Walks or Pleasure Grounds, and support or contribute towards any Premises provided for such Purposes by any Person whomsoever”. Even then, it took until the Public Health Act of 1875 to give local authorities the power to purchase and provide places of public recreation, raising loans from central government on the back of local rates (s. 164 and Part VI in (29)) – “Any urban authority may purchase or take on lease lay out plant improve and maintain lands for the purpose of being used as public walks or pleasure grounds, and may support or contribute to the support of public walks or pleasure grounds provided by any person whomsoever. Any urban authority may make byelaws for the regulation of any such public walk or pleasure ground, and may by such byelaws provide for the removal from such public walk or pleasure ground of any person infringing any such byelaw by any officer of the urban authority or constable”

The crucial value of these spaces became very apparent to us, more so than we had ever imagined

Two public parks in the Bradford District are illustrative of the early history of park development and, while they in no way have the areas of naturalistic wildness of Central Park or Rock Creek Park, they are multi-use, landscaped areas free from urban mayhem – and from agriculture - that meet the many needs of people. Land in the Manningham area of Bradford was long in the ownership of the Lister family, with Ellis Cunliffe Lister, the prospective MP for Bradford, moving in to the family home of Manningham Hall, built in 1769, and enlarging the site as deer and low parks around 1820 (30,31). In 1838, a few years after he gave evidence to the Select Committee on Public Walks, he opened the first of the family’s textile mills in the area. Samuel Cunliffe Lister inherited in 1853, and considered turning the deer and low parks into a park-like estate of houses for wealthy members of the middle classes. However, he changed his mind, moved out to Fairfield Hall in Addingham, and sold the 22ha site to Bradford Corporation in 1870 for £40,000, less than its market value, on condition that the land was used to make a public park. Work started in 1854, but the basic elements of the layout were not completed until after the erection of Cartwright Hall in 1904, a purpose built art gallery funded by a donation from Lister in 1900 that also paid for the demolition of Manningham Hall. There are formal gardens in front of the art gallery in Lister Park, a serpentine lake used by ducks (and later for boating) that is fed by a stream running around the former botanical garden that was opened in 1903, and which is now themed on botany and geology. Overall, the park slopes down to the east with large areas of grassland, and with mature specimen, boundary and avenues trees beside a network of well surfaced walkways of varying width. There are bowls greens, tennis courts, a Multi Activity Community Area, and a modern day play area (32).

One of the last parts of the model town built around Salts Mill in Saltaire for mill-owner Sir Titus Salt during the years 1851-71 was the park, reached from the mill by a footbridge across the River Aire (33,34). Initially called the People's Park or Saltaire Park, it was opened on 25th July 1871 with a set of rules for the mill workers that would be its users “with a view to promote their comfort and happiness” (35). There would be no entry for drunks, unaccompanied children under the age of eight, no dogs unless on a lead, no horse, ass, mule, carriage or cart would be admitted; no touching of trees, shrubs, plants of flowers; no dropping of orange peel or other refuse; no stone throwing, disorderly and indecorous conduct, profane and indecent language, gambling, pitch and toss, and soliciting alms; and no wine, beer, spirits, or intoxicating drinks were to be consumed in the Park. When the mill failed, Sir James Roberts purchased the park in 1891, and became sole owner of the mill and village in 1899 (36). Roberts gifted the park to Shipley Urban District Council in 1910. However, following a quarrel with the Council he took it back and presented it to the City of Bradford in 1920, when he renamed it Roberts Park in memory of one of his sons (33). The 6ha of Roberts Park slope southwards towards a terraced walk that bisects the park E-W from end to end, with the landscaped gardens to the N originally planted with a variety of plants that were labelled for the benefit of public botanical knowledge. The gardens are divided by curving paths, edged with rocks in places, areas of grass, plus specimen and boundary trees. Below the bank on which the terrace sits are the flat lands of sports fields that back on to the river. The River Aire was widened at this point to provide facilities for boating and swimming.

The surety of surface that the paths in both Lister and Roberts Parks afford, made them a crucial part of the rehabilitation of my partner after she underwent total knee replacement surgery for successive knees over two years. The pavements where we live are treacherous in their unevenness, as are the roads, but the evenness and good surface of the paths in these parks took away a lot of the fear of falling, so that relearning to walk could be the focus, and the gradual reduction in reliance on walking sticks could go smoothly. They are also patently a much better environment than a roadside walk or the uncertainty of a footpath across a field, with much interest coming from the trees, shrubs and other plantings, the river, and the lake with its ducks. That there are benches scattered through these parks was an important part of goal setting for distance walked at a time, as well as being places of rest and reflection. Given as well all the other users of these two parks and their diversity of activity – again, all human life is there - the crucial value of these spaces became very apparent to us, more so than we had ever imagined. Then it became my turn when after fours year of intermittent fibromyalgia, the onset of spinal stenosis last year left me almost unable to walk. Lumbar spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal in the lower back so that it pinches the spinal cord, and causes lower back and leg pain (37). Though there is no cure for spinal stenosis, exercise is important to keep the hip and leg muscles from getting weaker as that helps increase stability and the ability to walk.

A statutory duty on local authorities to provide and maintain parks

I don’t think the future of these two public parks is at risk, as both have the protection of Grade II Heritage listing (30,33) and have undergone renovations funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (38,39). The same cannot be said of all public parks. In July 2016, the Heritage Lottery Fund issued its second State of the UK Public Parks report (40). It showed that there was a growing deficit between the rising use of parks and the declining resources that were available to manage them, fundamentally because park funding is discretionary and is not given any priority. Based on surveys, it found that at the same time that usage of parks is increasing, park maintenance budgets and staffing levels were being cut. The research called for collaborative action to deliver new ways of funding and managing public parks to avert the crisis of a continuing downward trend in the condition of many of the parks and green spaces. Also in July 2016, the Communities and Local Government Committee launched an inquiry into public parks to examine the impact of reduced local authority budgets and consider concerns that their existence was under threat (41). Shortly afterwards, in September 2016, a petition was started, directed at the Committee, imploring it to recommend making protecting our parks a legal requirement- the petition is still open and has reached 323,777 signatures towards a target of 500,000 (42).

The resultant report from the Committee in early 2017 said that it had heard many calls throughout its inquiry for a statutory duty on local authorities to provide and maintain parks in order to raise the profile of parks within local authority prioritisation and budget allocation (43). It acknowledged that 322,000 had at the time of publication of the report signed the petition. However, the Committee weaselled out of making such a recommendation, which they considered “could be burdensome and complex” and not “achieve the outcomes intended”. In its place was some wafty nonsense about even more reports needed to articulate the contribution parks made to wider local authority objectives, and to set out how parks could be managed to maximise such contributions – “We believe that this would increase joint working within local authorities, raise the awareness of parks and green spaces and their contributions to wider goals, and facilitate support for parks and green spaces from other service areas”. This would mean using funds allocated to the actions of other services being used instead in parks if they were able to fulfil those actions. There was also the get out gifted to the Committee by the State of the UK Public Parks report that selling the benefits of parks would open up “alternative funding sources for parks” – undertones there of a neoliberal takeover of public land, as well as opening them up to exploitative uses. The author of that report was one of the witnesses giving evidence to the Committee. He had previously produced a report on new business models for parks where he had written about parks generating income from commercial developments, and that parks should take on a more commercially based land management, such as leasing sites for sheep grazing (44). Well, that's just going backwards in terms of how public parks should be viewed today (24). When questioned by the Committee on how, in future, parks could be funded by property development, this witness replied that the "quality and quantity of public space had to be defined as to whether there was capacity to reduce some of that park stock for development" - in other words, selling off public lands (Q.13 in (43)). How does any of that secure sufficient focus and funding to maintain a much needed public asset? Many others feel the same, with a Charter for Parks being launched last June by a coalition of national organisations (45,46) this despite Government funding a Parks Action Group the year before (47). The Charter organisations must have considered it ineffectual. Thus they seek to have all tiers of Government adopt the six points of the Charter, as well as more organisations signing up to the Charter. Two of the six points are endorsing a legal duty for all public green space to be managed to a good standard, and ensuring adequate long-term resources for maintenance, management and improvement (45,46). As of January 2019, the list of supporting organisations signed up to the Charter is 24 National Organisations and 170 Local and Regional Organisations (48).

As I have explained, Britain was denied a public system of wildlands by the Addison Committee report on national parks in 1931 (49-51) but at least we do have the public parks, a system of public lands unburdened by agricultural or other commercial exploitation, free from urban mayhem (traffic etc.) and with varying elements of nature in the landscaped vegetation and water features. These public lands of the parks undoubtedly contribute to the wildlife habitat and thus ecology of urban areas. They are part of the urban matrix, a complex habitat mosaic made up of patches, such as remnants of natural and semi-natural landscapes, parks, cemeteries, green spaces, wastelands, and other vegetation areas that overall constitute the green skeleton in amongst the physical development, the green infrastructure that contributes to the biological diversity of a city (52). The permeability of the urban matrix, the possibilities for plants and animals to move through urban areas, is strongly influenced by the amount of greenery and barrier effects that prevent the movement of flora and fauna. It’s not a great leap to see how public parks enhance the functions of the habitat space and permeability for animals and plants of the urban matrix, and which gives them significance and value as nodes in connecting and networking the wildlife of urban ecology, a significance that can go alongside the immense human value they have. If some attention could be given to the naturalistic values of our public parks, it would mean, like Central Park, that they will be places where all human life is there and probably even some wildlife.

Mark Fisher 3 February 2019

(1) Battersea Park, Historic England

(2) University Parks, University of Oxford

(3) The University Parks, Oxford, Historic England

(4) Merton College, Historic England

(5) The Meadow, Christ Church

(6) Christ Church, Historic England

(7)Port Meadow, Oxford City Council

(8) Exploring Shotover Country Park, Oxford City Council

(9) The History of Alderley Park, Zool Digital 16 June 2015

(10) Macclesfield South Park, Cheshire East Council

(11) Macclesfield South Park, Parks and Gardens

(12) Research, Penn State College of Medicine

(13) Hershey Gardens, M.S. Hershey Foundation

(14) Pennsylvania State Game Lands, Pennsylvania Game Commission

(15) Pennsylvania State Parks, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

(16) Blue Marsh Lake National Recreation Area, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

(17) Park History, Central Park Conservancy

(18) Schuyler, D. (1986). The new urban landscape. The redefinition of City Form in Nineteenth Century America. The Johns Hopkins University Press

(19) Beveridge, C.E. (2000) Olmsted — His Essential Theory. The National Association for Olmsted Parks

(20) Contemplation of natural scenes, Self-willed land January 2012

(21) Rock Creek Park, District of Columbia, National Park Service

(22) The natural aspect - Epping Forest and Rock Creek Park, Self-willed land November 2012

(23) Forever Green — Ensuring the Future of Central Park, Central Park Conservancy News Release July 13, 2016

(24) Moving past process to outcome – the manifestation of wild land. September 2017

(25) Robert Slaney MP, PUBLIC HEALTH. House of Commons Parliamentary Debates, 1833, February 21, col. 1056

(26) Slaney, Robert Aglionby

(27) Report from the Select Committee on Public Walks with the Minutes of Evidence taken before them, The House of Commons 27 June 1833

(28) Public Health Act 1848 c. 63

(29) Public Health Act 1875 c. 55

(30) Lister Park, Historic England

(31) Lister Park, Manningham Conservation Area Assessment, City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council 2005

(32) Lister Park Play Area, City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council

(33) Roberts Park, Historic England

(34) Saltaire Conservation Zone, Conservation Area Assessment, City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council March 2004

(35) Saltaire Park, now known as Roberts Park, Saltaire Village

(36) Nomination of Saltaire Village for inclusion in The World Heritage List, City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council, English Heritage, Department for Culture, Media & Sport 2001

(37) Spinal Stenosis and Neurogenic Claudication, Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust, February 2015

(38) Bradford, Lister Park, Heritage Fund

(39) Roberts Park, Saltaire, Heritage Fund

(40) State of UK Public Parks 2016, Heritage Lottery Fund

(41) Future of public parks inquiry launched, Commons Select Committees, House of Commons 11 July 2016

(42) Save our parks, 38degrees

(43) Public parks, Seventh Report of Session 2016–17, Communities and Local Government Committee, House of Commons January 2017

(44) Neal, P. (2013) Rethinking Parks, exploring new business models for parks in the 21st Century. Nesta

(45) The Charter for Parks, National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces News 21 June 2018

(46) The Charter for Parks

(47) Government pledges £500,000 for new action group to grow future of public parks, Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government Press release 19 September 2017

(48) Charter for Parks - Full list of supporting organisations as of 17.1.2019

(49) Rewiring an emptied food web, January 2018

(50) The continuing destruction of our native trophic pyramid, February 2018

(51) Conservation biology and the repair of our damaged and degraded ecosystems, April 2018

(52) Werner, P. (2011). The ecology of urban areas and their functions for species diversity. Landscape and Ecological Engineering, 7(2), 231-240