Academic laments plight of London park policies

London's parks are caught in the stranglehold of the past, preventing development of modern, multifunctional urban parks policy, according to a London School of Economics academic.

Victoria Park: archetypal urban park created in capital
Victoria Park: archetypal urban park created in capital

Regional and urban planning PhD candidate Meredith Whitten, who was an economic development consultant and policy analyst for state legislature in her native USA, has completed her thesis "Reconceptualising Green Space: Planning for urban green space in 21st Century London", based on research and a series of interviews with parks professionals in inner London.

Speaking at the Association for Public Service Excellence parks and green spaces seminar at London's City Hall on 23 September, she reminded delegates of the origin of the public park movement in the 19th century that sought to give working people access to "countryside in the city" and an escape from the "dirty and corrupted" city, filled with "disease and a lack of morals".

"The Victorians idolised the countryside," she said, adding that this image persists. "There's nothing about making green space part of the urban fabric. It's quite the opposite, the intent is to make green space not part of the city. It's not part of the urban infrastructure and the urban structure. We idolise the time when this countryside in the city was created and green spaces valued as heritage assets because of their link to cultural identity."

Heritage drives design, management, maintenance and policy, framing the debate, attitudes to green space and funding, said Whitten. "History limits the ability of green spaces to adapt to changing needs, demands and demographics of contemporary London. It conflicts with modern planning policies. What we ask of our green spaces today is quite different from what the Victorians asked."

She added that many council departments have an interest in green space but there is no strategic overview, something perpetuated by how council budgets are set up and compounded "when staff can't afford to talk to each other".

One respondent complained: "You must freeze-frame parks in the past or you don't get funding", while another described the UK approach as "archaic". Another told Whitten: "Green space ought to be seen as multifunctional but too often it's not seen like that."

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