The world’s first public park, Peel Park, was opened in Salford, Greater Manchester, in 1864. It was the first of three public parks opened that year, all of which had been financed by public subscription. The reasons why these and other public parks were created carry important lessons for anyone concerned with the state of our cities. Our regressive attitude towards the public park and other community or green spaces can be understood only when the social and political context of the urban public park is considered.
There is a world of difference between a park and a garden. A garden is a formal space most often characterised by a boundary wall. This wall protects the precious flora and fauna grown in the garden. It also serves to keep people out. Gardens throughout history have been associated with the aristocracy. They were expressions of political will, displays of engineering prowess and samples of the bounty and plenty acquired by their patrons. But they were never meant for public consumption.
The earliest parks in Europe were hunting grounds. During times of peace, monarchs would often display their horse-riding skills or their grasp of tactics and strategy by arranging elaborate hunts. At the time, hunts were the substitute for battle experience, and parks were maintained by many a novice prince to prove to the world they too could lead a cavalry charge. Because of the size of these parks, it was often unfeasible to surround them by walls. Still, trespassers were prosecuted because these parks were not meant to be used by the common man. London’s Hyde Park, for instance, was land Henry VIII seized from the Church and later fenced in as a deer park for royal hunts and entertainment. It wasn’t until 1637 that Charles I finally allowed the public to enter the park. This didn’t mean everyone was allowed, though, and the Great Unwashed were unscrupulously checked at the entrance.
What, then, motivated the English to create a park solely for the use of the public? By the middle of the 19th Century, the pollution caused by the Industrial Revolution had made urban living unbearable. Factories churned out smoke from coal-driven engines and made the air unbreathable. Far more insidious was the fact that, as a rule, urban planning did not exist, other than as an exception. As a result, English cities lacked sanitation and sewerage facilities. And they were fast becoming congested. Because of high property prices there was little or no space for public recreation areas. People slept in their homes, navigated narrow streets covered in animal filth and night water to get to work and, if they had some money to spare, spent their free time drinking in a nearby pub. The word “pub,” incidentally, is short for “public house,” and so called because people didn’t have enough space in their squalid homes to entertain friends and family. They resorted, therefore, to a public house that had chairs, a fireplace and, of course, alcohol.
Pollution, congestion and alcohol are not the foundations upon which a city can provide for social progress. This much had dawned on the likes of reformers like Richard Walker, the MP from Bury who spoke in Westminster about the lack of areas for recreation in his town. In 1833, Parliament even set up a Select Committee on public walks. The committee noted that, in the previous 50 years, “many enclosures of open spaces in the vicinity of Towns had taken place, and little or no provision had been made for Public Walks or Open Spaces, fitted to afford means of exercise or amusement to the middle or humbler classes.” Its conclusion was that “having a place to which they (the humbler classes) might resort on a Sunday evening would tend to promote that self-respect which is so advantageous to all classes.”
Across the Atlantic, in New York City, there was also a growing demand for a public area that could provide “working class New Yorkers with a healthy alternative to the saloon.” In 1853, the City of New York was authorised by the state legislature to exercise eminent domain to acquire more than 700 acres of land in the centre of Manhattan. Thus was born Central Park.
The need for parks wasn’t just a need for public recreation space. The class difference between those who could enjoy private parks and gardens and those who couldn’t was becoming impossible to ignore. By the middle of the 19th Century, “the excessive exclusiveness with regards to parks considered public” was “enough to make any person’s blood boil.” This exclusiveness struck some as “most conducive to revolutionary Principles” (quotes from an extract of a letter to the editor of The Times on July 10, 1864). Prime Minister Robert Peel was farsighted enough to identify the soul of the complaint and address the class issue. He helped raise money for the public parks constructed in Salford and was subsequently honoured by the citizenry when they named the first “public” park after him. When Queen Victoria visited Salford in 1851, she was greeted in Peel Park by over 8,000 well-wishers. Readers should note the fact that England is one of the few European countries that didn’t suffer a revolution and which hasn’t stripped the Crown of its prestige. One wonders how far things like Peel Park acted like release valves allowing pent up public frustration to be dissipated.
Parks were brought to our part of the world by the British colonialist. Earlier, there was hardly a notion of a public park. This was because of two primary reasons. First, there were very few cities and no industrialisation. Second, there was no democratic function in government. The aristocracy owed nothing to the people, only allegiance to the sovereign. And they were happy in their private gardens.
The first parks built by the colonialists were not public parks. Not at all. The Company Bagh (or Gol Bagh, or Nasser Bagh) in Lahore, as recalled by Goulding, was where English residents of the Civil Station spent their Sunday. No dogs or natives allowed. Lahore’s Lawrence Gardens were constructed from funds raised by the colonialists through the sale of Badami Bagh north of the city. There are no badams in the area now. And no bagh either. And Lawrence Gardens were originally the home of the Gymkhana Club. No dogs or natives either.
With Ebeneezer Howard’s concept of the Garden City, the colonialist changed the urban planning template they employed in India and public parks became the standard for any new locality. The purpose of these public parks was public recreation for the “humbler classes” as well as a measure of social equality. In a public park, the rich and poor share the same space and breathe the same air. Public parks are great manifestations of democracy and social equality.
All too often, we forget the purpose and function of public parks. All too often, parks are treated as a luxury secondary in importance to, say, settlement and urban development. All too often, the green belts along the roadside are associated with public space. Ardeshir Cowasjee has spent decades defending Karachi’s public parks from greedy developers, and I, for one, have spent a lifetime trying to understand why the argument to develop new and preserve old public parks remains misunderstood.
The conditions in Lahore and other Pakistani cities are a modern-day equivalent of conditions in Victorian England. With new city-specific radio and television media springing up, more and more people are realising that the everyday cry of an ordinary urbanite is not development. It is clean water, sanitation and, last but not least, quality recreation spaces. Public parks, apart from being beautiful and good for the urban environment, give people self-respect and dignity, and the quicker our politicians realise the political capital they can acquire by acting on this the better it will be for our future.
The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: ralam@nexlinx .net.pk