In a summer when even Conservative voters, MPs and publications are suddenly waking up to the realisation that nothing in the UK seems to work and everything seems to be breaking – and they’re all trying very hard to find the guy who did this – crumbling parks infrastructure may be low down the list of priorities, given the desperate state of the NHS, the social care system, our sewage-filled rivers and soaring demand for food banks.
But these are dark times for our parks, which have been devastated by annual Conservative budget cuts since 2010. Last week a Guardian investigation found that local authorities in England are spending £330m less a year on parks in real terms than they were a decade ago. The study found that less affluent parts of the country have been hit the hardest by austerity, with parks in the north-west and the north-east suffering in particular.
Our urban parks are the last vestiges of truly free public space in an age of privatised squares and local authority fire sales of public assets. They offer robust support for our mental as well as physical health, they offer us solace through solitude and joyful social space without an obligation to buy anything – they are democracy rendered in three dimensions, with jumpers for goalposts in the background.
But now drastic underfunding is seriously degrading not just the quality and safety of public parks – with reports of broken benches, rusted swings, dead trees and empty flowerbeds – but also their accessibility and very publicness. Big city parks – especially those in London, but also in Bristol, Newcastle and Nottingham – are increasingly seeking to plug the gaping holes in their budgets with commercial income generated through walled-off, paid-entry festivals that render public parks effectively semi-privatised for large portions of the summer.
In 2019 I submitted freedom of information requests to London’s 32 borough councils about the number of paid-for events in their parks, and found that many were cordoning off public space for weeks at a time in the warmest months of the year. With substantial festival infrastructure taking several days to build and dismantle, some councils were simply leaving their fences up in between bookings, leaving areas of the park inaccessible even outside scheduled events.
It is grimly ironic that they are becoming less accessible spaces when the pandemic lockdowns highlighted just how essential our urban parks are – in particular to those less well off, to people living in overcrowded flats without gardens or balconies. And even then, wonky science on viral transmission and petty authoritarianism sought to deprive those who most needed our parks from using them freely. I will always remember the bizarre sight in 2020 of police vans circling Peckham Rye common telling people to go home, and park benches taped off by the police in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
Our green spaces have always been contested spaces, and have been fenced off and preserved for an elite few at numerous points in our history. The history of parks and commons is not one of unbroken freedom rudely interrupted by austerity and privatisation in the 2010s. Many beloved city parks today only exist because of public pressure from below – such as Victoria Park in Hackney, created in the 19th century as respite for the poor from the dark and disease-ridden slums of industrial east London.
One of my most beloved local places for a walk is a delightfully wild, wooded and peaceful little park speckled with blackberries, bugs, parakeets and three-cornered leeks called One Tree Hill: the views over the London skyline to the north are spectacular. For centuries it had been this way (minus the parakeets), a place where children climbed trees and picked flowers and all people could roam freely, until it was suddenly enclosed by a golf club in 1896, who erected a 6ft fence and patrolled it with guard dogs. The seizure of this public space was met with fierce opposition over the following months.
In October 1897 a large crowd gathered to protest the enclosure, and 500 police were summoned, some of them mounted, to protect the golf club’s newly seized property. But “the hill was soon covered with a disorderly multitude” of thousands of local people, who fought and overwhelmed the police to pull down the fences and reclaim the land. The “irregulars of the One Tree Hill Movement” won their historic battle and a few years later the council compulsorily purchased the land from the golf club to create the officially protected public park we can all enjoy today.
Private capital does not rest in its efforts to claw at, sequester, fence off and draw profit from that which is held in common, and never has done. In what the historian Dr Katrina Navickas has called “enclosure by privatisation”, we see the same patterns repeated in the threats to our public parks today. To paraphrase US folk singer Utah Phillips, our public realm is not dying, it is being killed – and those who are killing it have names, addresses and lanyards for party conference season.
The French situationists deployed the famous line Sous les pavés, la plage! – under the cobblestones, the beach! – as a pointer to the utopian potential lying dormant in the ground beneath our feet: the idea that a better world exists not just in abstract theory, but in the material world we inhabit, in the ostensibly humdrum urban paths we walk down every day.
The story in the soil is one of vital historic battles for free assembly, protest, foraging and grazing – but also for a place of play, relaxation, ritual, exercise and peace for all ages, classes and races. How many other spaces in Britain are left that truly belong to and are inhabited by us all? Under the parks, the commons!
Dan Hancox is a freelance journalist, focusing on music, politics, cities and culture