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Parks are the nation’s wellness clinics. This past year they have been, after hospitals, the unsung, unclapped heroes of the pandemic. They are therapies for isolated and lonely people, places of exercise and relaxation, havens of nature and reflection. Millions of people have found in them refuge and comfort. This coming year, with staycationing a national necessity, millions more will do so. How on earth will the parks cope?
One of the pictures of last year was of Bournemouth and Brighton beaches crammed with sunbathers during a supposed lockdown, the police powerless to clear them. Another picture was of Dorset’s Durdle Door showing visitors queueing simply to get on to the coastal path as if to get into Wembley stadium. The approaches to Snowdon’s Llanberis Pass might have been Silverstone on the day of the British grand prix.
London has been the same. Over the course of the past year, I have cycled round every major London park – from wild Epping to sylvan Wimbledon. Everywhere, weekdays or weekends, was packed with Londoners gasping for air. Parliament Hill was like the Glastonbury festival, with swarms of people wallowing in mud. Cycling on the Kensington Gardens Broad Walk was impossible, so great was the crush of pedestrians. Nowhere was 2-metre social distancing observed. Sometimes humanity overwhelms rules.
We have to find new ways of handling these crowds if, as now predicted, holidaying at home is to become the norm. Durdle Door’s owner, the Lulworth Estate, was so traumatised last June when “whole cities” decamped to the beach that this week it pleaded for an end to “hit and run” tourism, with its “mass littering, fly-camping, graffiti, fire and other environmental concerns”. It cannot afford wardens and lifeguards if people fall down cliffs and vanish into the sea.
For the staycationing industry, Britain’s parks and open spaces are its principal asset. It depends on their conservation but also on the quality of their facilities and accessibility. There is no question of the worth of such assets. In the crazy world of cost-benefit, open spaces have “externalities” so massive that the Fields in Trust charity has given them a value of £34bn per year in terms of mental and physical health, and reduced call on the NHS.
Short of pleading with people to go back to Greece and Spain, the government must assist the national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty to cope with what this year are going to be unprecedented crowds of visitors. These places are still run as if Britain was a tourist destination of the 1950s, of quiet motoring on empty lanes lined with genteel teashops and pubs. In reality, they are targets in the crosshairs of an invasion of mass 21st-century tourism – and they are free.
In Britain last summer we had the stupidity of local police telling people to turn round when they had already reached their destination car park. No one was in charge. Even a motorway sign saying “Windermere is full: turn round” would have helped. Yosemite national park in California meticulously guides drivers to where there is space and where there is not. At its most basic, someone is going to have to make cars book access to some national parks, as the National Trust now does.
City parks face a more complex moment of truth. One in eight British households has no access to a garden, and one in five Londoners. As flats replace houses, this proportion will only rise. Millions more people will crave open space, a craving not just for leisure but for society, health and psychological relief. Parks will become like London’s Primrose Hill was last summer – a Greek amphitheatre, with people just sitting row upon row. Investment is needed in everything from pathway reclamation to tree-planting, rewilding, and buying and conserving new open space, however modest, whenever it comes on the market.
In this spirit, it is surely time for the monarchy to make a gesture. Every dynasty has donated open space to London. The Stuarts gave Hyde Park, the Hanoverians Regent’s Park, Queen Victoria, Epping and Kensington Gardens. The House of Windsor’s record is bare.
The royal family hates Buckingham Palace. The Queen is rarely there. The Prince of Wales is known to have ruled out moving from Clarence House when he becomes king. The palace’s 17-hectare (42-acre) private garden is now mostly used by Boris Johnson for his morning run – a princely privilege on a scale of Marie Antoinette. Charles’s succession is surely the time to turn the palace into a museum and to incorporate the garden into Green Park. This would complete a majestic, health-giving crescent of green across London, from Notting Hill to Victoria. It would be truly a park of parks.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Parks have been a lifeline during the pandemic. Let’s make Buckingham Palace a public space | Parks and green spaces