We can expect, now that cracks are appearing in the government’s commitment to austerity, calls for many deserving causes to be released from their starvation diets. Of these, Britain’s parks and green spaces have been among the most viciously cut. They cost little in relation to their benefits. They are also assets for the long term, representing years and decades of investment that will be lost if they are degraded or, as is happening in some cases, sold off or built over. If, as David Cameron says, the point of austerity is to give future generations protection against future hard times, it makes no sense to throw away things of lasting capital value. Once gone, they won’t come back.
For who could not want parks? Who could not want their freedoms, their solace, their greenery and fresh air, their beauty, their opportunities for conviviality and solitude, their democratic indifference to class and wealth, the glimpse of nature they offer in hard cities? Playing in the park is a central part of urban childhoods, the stuff of memories and children’s stories. What could be wrong with what the Danish architect, town planner and writer Steen Eiler Rasmussen found in British parks – the “raw sensation of the elements” and their ability to free the mind? “How valuable it is,” he wrote, “to have access to the wonderland of an unrestrained imagination.” Henry James called them “an ornament not elsewhere to be matched”.
Who could not be grateful to the Improvement Commission of 1841, which created Birkenhead Park in the Wirral, the world’s first publicly funded civic park? Or to the Victorian campaigners who fought to preserve common land from developers or to the local authorities that acquired and maintained green spaces in towns and cities or the benefactors who endowed them?
Parks are good for bodily and mental health. They help in the fight against obesity. They are good for biodiversity and lower city temperatures in the summer. They are free