Cows Are Indecorous! A Brief History of Parks

Within the hustle and bustle of London, parks play a crucial role. They are the natural oases amidst the metallic urban sprawl. They are the public spaces in which people gather to have picnics, birthday parties, protests, and—depending on the park—maybe even a clandestine shag. Parks are a weird concept when you really start to think about it. They are supposed to be these natural spaces, yet putting up a fence around some land and making a footpath doesn’t sound very natural, does it? As contradictory as it sounds, parks are artificially constructed spaces of nature. But where did these strange green spaces come from? How did they develop?

The earliest form of park in England was an allotment of land known as a deer park. These large pieces of land were enclosed hunting grounds for royalty and aristocratic families during the Middle Ages up to the 17 century. As the name suggests, these parks were mainly used to hunt deer. Serving venison at one’s stately home, then, became a status symbol of one’s wealth. The very idea of public parks at this time did not exist. In fact, commoners were strictly forbidden to enter or hunt on a rich person’s deer park. But that didn’t stop some people from trying. Deer parks became the space in which neighboring or rival aristocratic families pursued vendettas or caused mischief. In 1523 Sir William St. Loe broke into Banwell Park in Someset and killed a bunch of game. The Bishop of Bath responded by killing more than 20 deer in Loe’s backyard, and supposedly, stuck the heads of the dead venison on boundary stakes. Clearly killing deer was just the thing you did in a medieval park turf war.

The first public park in Britain, however, wasn’t built until 1840. With the increasing stresses of modern life in an industrializing country, mill owner Joseph Strutt, created a haven for his textile workers to go and relax in. He called it the Derby Arboretum (and, in case you don’t know what arboretum means, it’s a fancy way of saying tree museum, or even more simply; a forest). Strutt’s public park started a trend as more and more parks were created in grimy soot-stained cities of Victorian England. The rise of cities created a separation that hadn’t existed before: the urban and the pastoral. Places like London needed to demarcate and protect spaces specifically for nature in the rapidly developing man-made environment.

With the original deer parks and even Strutt’s Aboretum, there’s a strong connection between parks and the upper class. American sociologist Thorstein Verblen observed in his witty oeuvre Conspicuous Consumption that a park essentially flaunts the fact that it is not farmland, because the person who owns it can afford to use it for pleasure rather than pasture; “a herd of cattle so pointedly suggests thrift and usefulness that their presence in the public pleasure ground would be intolerably cheap.” He goes on to note that having cows on your land “is comparatively inexpensive, therefore it is indecorous.” In other words, parks aren’t commercial entities: they are symbols of leisure; antithetical abodes within a capitalist framework.

Nowadays parks are being redesigned in whole new ways. Linear parks such as New York City’s High Line and Paris’ Promenade Plantée utilize abandoned overground railways to create parks that run through the city. Such innovations blur the lines between natural and urban spaces. Similarly, in Berlin, the Templehof Airport hangar has been appropriated into a park with bike paths and mini golf. Public parks in the 21st century are becoming more than just a natural solace from urban life, more than just a get away. The parks described above show that natural green areas don’t need to be completely demarcated from urban zones—that the two can exist simultaneously within the same space.

Though perhaps this is an optimistic idea. In the UK, financial pressure on public parks is on the rise with cuts to funding year after year. That said, such stress on parks has actually led to all sorts of creative ideas on ways to make parks more economically viable. For instance, in Hoxton Square (of course inventive post-modern park design would happen in Hoxton), a special tree house has been built. It’s not an ordinary tree house. In fact, it’s a rentable office space with electric sockets and desks. Finally, I can hear business people rejoicing, we can have meetings in a park and it won’t be all hippie-dippy! Sheffield’s Heeley Park is proposing its own alternative initiative: offering a subscription services that would allow subscribers preferential treatment with regards to park concerts and other events.

All of this shows that the park is more alive than ever. New ideas and designs are changing our understanding of both urban and natural spaces. So much so that now one can even spend a whole day in the office and be at the park—that and steal a slice of some kid’s birthday cake.

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