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Urbanism ––– Global
Parks and recreation

Is green space bad? Des Fitzgerald explains how urban parks were designed to make us factory-ready – and why it’s not so different today.


In 1833 the UK government appointed a parliamentary committee to ameliorate unsanitary living conditions in cities. This committee’s focus was not on building safer housing, improving working conditions or broadening access to medical care but rather on increasing the number of places in which poor folk could go for a walk. Perhaps the emphasis is unexpected, though this was an era in which country air and proximity to greenery was imagined not only to have physical benefits but spiritual ones too. 

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After months of gathering evidence, the select committee announced itself quite convinced that “some open places reserved for the amusement… of the humbler classes would assist to wean them from low and debasing pleasures” such as “drinking houses, dog fights and boxing matches”. On their day of rest, “a man walking out with his family… will naturally be desirous to be properly clothed, and that his Wife and Children should be so also”. Such a desire for public probity, concluded the committee, will have “the most powerful effect in promoting Civilization, and exciting Industry”.

It might seem odd to think that the urban park is a truly sinister piece of 19th-century technology. In the years that followed the committee’s report, the great era of park building began in earnest, first in the UK and then worldwide. We’ve become used to seeing the park as a much-loved community space that is always, at least symbolically, under threat from greedy developers and lazy council bureaucrats. But the aim of the city park was never the benign provision of green space for recreation. Its aim was to guide and control – to nudge – the behaviour of the urban working classes; to get them out of the pubs and into the air where they could see, and indeed keep an eye on, one another. Most importantly, the park was there to maintain that most valuable of assets, the physical power of muscle: the actual productive capacity of industrial capitalism, now encased in these men’s suddenly valuable bodies. 

This is no historical quirk. The ideological relationship between the city and green space – the idea that we need nature to tame and civilise the worst excesses of urban life – is still with us today. It was there in 2019 when London – bafflingly – declared itself the world’s first National Park City (what does that mean?). It was there when the mayor of Paris announced that she would erect an “urban forest” around four of her city’s most famous landmarks. It was there when the UK’s new “tree champion”, William Worsley, declared that urban trees would “improve our health and wellbeing and help grow the economy”.

The ideological relationship between the city and green space – the idea that we need nature to tame and civilise the worst excesses of urban life – is still with us today

It’s not that any of this is bad or wrong. But we would be naive not to think that urban green space is deeply political, that the 19th-century vision of keeping people safely and boringly occupied while maintaining their tired bodies and brains well enough to keep the wheels of industry reliably turning is still very much alive. Maybe then, it’s time to give up on the fetish of the park, even to consider replacing it altogether with something more self-consciously dense and artificial; something with the unexpected joy of alleys and walkways, something that finally builds a concrete wall across the stern, watchful gaze of one’s self-righteous neighbours under the plane trees. 

Fitzgerald is an author and academic. His most recent book, ‘The City of Today is a Dying Thing: In Search of the Cities of Tomorrow’, is out now. 

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