A Walk in the Park by Travis Elborough

As the weather improves and we enjoy time outside Travis Elborough introduces his study of a people’s institution – the public park

The Swiss author Robert Walser once argued that it always feels like a Sunday in a park. Like Sundays, parks certainly occupy a unique temporal zone. For their visitors at least, they seem at one remove from workaday life. Time within them can be wasted, parks supplying the ideal location when we’ve nothing else to do. Or desperately want to do nothing in particular, and as languorously as possible. And yet they are also hives of activity – albeit of a leisurely, if athletic, kind.

When Walser spoke of Sundays, though, it was because, for him, these public spaces were imbued with the same melancholy as the interminable Sundays you only ever experience as a small child. Perhaps Walser’s melancholy is unique, but the park, for many of us, is surely infused with childhood memories: of lazy sun-dappled afternoons, of swings and roundabouts, and mud-stained knees on the local playing fields, the aroma of freshly mown grass and the cloying scent of brightly coloured geraniums. Nearly all of us first encounter parks as small children. And, in due course, take our own children to parks. So maybe some of us do share Walser’s melancholy – perhaps these spaces remind us of lost innocence and the passing of the years.

When it comes to space rather than time, the limits of the majority of public parks remain clearly demarcated by fences and gates. Such barriers are seemingly there to protect the park from the noise and mess of the town or city. Or vice versa, with the metropolis quite possibly fearing contamination from too much exposure to plants and grass, much like a small child forever nudging uneaten vegetables to the edge of their dinner plate. But these barriers also create an aura of expectation, crowning the park as a precious destination in its own right, one that takes us out of the humdrum streets surrounding it, and out of ourselves. For grander public parks, there are postcards to send and collect, as if they were far-flung and exotic locations. To orientate ourselves in these places we consult their maps as eagerly as sailors, back in the day, staved off scurvy with sauerkraut and peered at the horizon with a sextant in hope of land. And like other newly discovered worlds, their founding principles were on occasion utopian, if, in retrospect, no less naive, misguided, presumptuous and plain wrong.

And this is a crucial point. Public parks were indeed ‘founded’, or – to escape the metaphor, and put it plainly – invented. General access to tended green spaces and the ability to enjoy them at relative leisure are comparatively modern and hard-fought developments, and the roots of even the humblest neighbourhood park or recreation ground lie in age-old battles over land and liberty. In Britain and much of the developed world, historically very little land was ever truly public. Under feudal systems, all land was essentially the property of the King, and access to it granted directly by the Crown or via feudal lords. ‘Common law’ in Britain meant that there were such things as commons, where the public might, for instance, graze cattle. But this space was not at all sacred, and was frequently enclosed by royalty and landlords for their private pleasure.

This trend continued right up until the opening decades of the nineteenth century, as British monarchs remained unstinting in snaffling previously accessible land and adding it to their store of greenery. Charles I, for instance, had blocked off several local footpaths and removed acres of parish grazing ground when he walled in Richmond Park in the 1630s. It was 1904 before the public got full access to the park again. And it was only the vigilance of Robert Walpole, Britain’s de facto first Prime Minister, that prevented Queen Caroline from seizing the whole of St James’s Park as her personal garden. While George IV’s Regent’s Park – which casually absorbed areas of smallholding farmland used to grow hay for London’s horses – was developed as a money- making scheme for the Crown, with exclusive residential properties incorporated into what was a gated private park.

As we’ll see, the creation of public parks wasn’t a sudden thing. The first parks were private, and, more often than not, used as royal hunting grounds. But over time it became apparent to some enlightened souls that an unhappy, subjugated population would benefit from designated public green space. And so would their rulers. Indeed, many of the globe’s most famous public parks were created in part to quell political unrest and prevent revolutions. Parks are, of course, tamed wilder- nesses. And as the world became farmed and then industrialised and consequently less wild, ecologically speaking, parks were widely deployed as tools to tame supposed wildness among the population, ease alienation and see off social discord.

But cultivated wildness can unexpectedly cultivate wildness, and much as rebellious peasants had once conspired to steal game from royal preserves, so disaffected urbanites would consistently use the park as a place to gather to misbehave, often disgracefully, and forcefully challenge authority.

Parks are full of such fascinating contradictions: authoritarian yet liberating, public and communal yet private and solitary. This book aims to pick its way through them, exploring the park’s place in history and parks as places where history has so often happened. It explores both the lives of the people who created landscapes that really have changed lives and the ordinary people who have used them.

But our cosy familiarity with public parks should not blind us to their increasing vulnerability in many countries around the world, and here in the UK too, for that matter. In a period when global economic conditions mean local authority budgets are being cut by central government, the upkeep and management of public parks is becoming ever harder to accomplish. Relief and support is being offered through outsourcing and private partnership, which, when it comes to a truly public resource, can be dangerous territory. In a world where almost anything, seemingly, can be converted into luxury flats, it’s worth recalling that parks are a noticeable absence from the board game Monopoly (Though the world’s largest permanent Monopoly board is to be found in a park in downtown San Jose, California). As a character in Don DeLillo’s 1973 novel Great Jones Street presciently observed, ‘the whole secret of corporate structures’ is to tell ‘the enemy you’ll plant some trees’. Protests such as those in 2013 in Istanbul against plans to redevelop Gezi Park in Taksim Square into a private shopping mall – protests which were violently suppressed by Turkish government forces – may become more familiar sights.

So many snippets of our own histories are bound up in the hours we’ve whiled away in parks. Days, if not weeks, of my own life have been spent in them. As I’m a city dweller with no garden, they are where I normally go to escape the desk and work. For the past three years, that was impossible. The local park served as an office, laboratory, a rebuke to procrastination and a place to talk to people about parks, all rolled into one. The resulting book then is a user’s history of sorts, one informed by the odd field trip and underscored by my foibles and preoccupations.

Like a walk in any park, it probably strays off an already winding path on occasions. There are, no doubt, one or two intermittent, or unexpected, pauses to survey a scene or take in the flowers, or watch a football game along the way. But hopefully its overall passage is no less diverting for that. Most parks are, after all, largely peripatetic places, and part of their beauty is that we usually take them in at our own pace.

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