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History of parks

Having a well maintained park in an area can push up property prices. Find out more about the economic benefits of parks.

The Park Keeper (1.1Mb PDF)

Commisioned by English Heritage, this report details the history of Park Keepers.
David Lambert, The Parks Agency, 2005

History of parks

Throughout the United Kingdom we have inherited a legacy of first class public parks and landscapes. Today, every town has a park that they can be proud of and many of these are also historically important.

The Victorians invented and shaped the concept of public parks and in turn influenced the creation of parks in North America and Europe. Recognising the need for places to relax, unwind, and to exercise, the top landscape designers of the day, like Joseph Paxton and John Claudius Loudon, were commissioned to lay out these new parks. During the mid to late nineteenth century, public park and landscape design was a hot topic and dominated professional journals and sections of newspapers just like gardening and interior design pages in today’s consumer magazines.

The promoters and champions of the first public parks also saw them as a means to boost the local economy and civic pride by making towns and cities attractive places to work and live. These parks were conceived as special places where all sections of society could enter free of charge and mix freely.

Many of the Victorian public parks were philanthropic gifts to the people of the local community by wealthy industrialists and landowners whilst others were created by public subscription. The best and most innovative park designs have proven to be remarkably robust, and throughout their history have continually adapted to meet new needs and are still cherished today by the people who use them.

One of the earliest public parks is the wonderful Derby Arboretum, which was a gift to the people of Derby by the textile manufacturer, Joseph Strutt. Derby was growing fast in the 1830s and Strutt set about creating an open space for the community and commissioned John Claudius Loudon, who was already a designer of repute, to create the new park. Loudon sculpted the ground to create sinuous shapes which were planted with an extensive collection of trees and on the 17th of September 1840, when Derby Arboretum was opened to the public, the whole town took the afternoon off work, all eager to enter the park for the first time.

Another of the earliest public parks, Joseph Paxton’s Birkenhead Park, was part of a residential development scheme to create an attractive setting for new homes and to recoup the costs through the property sales. Flanked on all sides by handsome houses and wide tree-lined boulevards, Birkenhead Park was the inspiration for New York’s Central Park. Other public open spaces were shaped from former private landscaped gardens and many of today’s country parks are developed from such historic estates.

Since the nineteenth century public parks have been created by every subsequent generation with different influences and designs. The new Mile End Park, a £25million Millennium Funded project, is very much in this tradition. This exciting project united existing green spaces in London’s East End to create a magnificent large-scale park. However, due to demands on urban space - especially for commercial and residential development - the opportunities to create big new parks on the scale of previous developments are few and the Victorian parks will always be exceptional for their size.

Throughout the history of our public parks, local authorities have played an important role and have strived to provide high quality parks services. But, in the last 30 years, many parks have become neglected and suffered a worrying loss of original features, such as bandstands, fountains and boating lakes. Rather than being seen as places of pride, they increasingly became eyesores as problems such as maintenance and funding led to a gradual decline. Throughout this period many historic parks became endangered as they were perceived as being old-fashioned and not relevant to today’s society. As a result, they became targets for redevelopment and unsympathetic re-design.

Through initiatives such as Heritage Lottery Funding and listing on English Heritage’s register parks and gardens of historic interest, historic designs are increasingly being re-evaluated and appreciated. The Heritage Lottery Fund has helped many local authorities restore their historic parks. This restoration has been the catalyst for the original Victorian designs to be dusted off, re-considered and brought back to their former glory. The genius of these designs enables each park to continue to evolve and adapt and to include new features for today’s park users.

Campaigns such as Britain in Bloom which is run by the Royal Horticultural Society encourages the best practice in public amenity horticulture and supports local authorities in showcasing their parks and gardens, and the skills of their parks staff. The National Flowerbed Competition at the RHS Flower Show at Tatton Park also highlights the ways in which bedding schemes can inspire and delight park visitors.

Public parks sought to create playgrounds for the masses and to provide clean fresh air to those who were living in increasingly built-up environments. Today, the need for parks has come full circle and the value of these places for sport, recreation, art, culture, ecology and biodiversity is as just as important now in the twenty-first century as it was in the nineteenth. When building new parks and green spaces, we should be aspiring to continue this design heritage by creating parks which will stand the test of time and be equally loved by future generations.

Jenifer White, English Heritage
Martin Duffy, GreenSpace