The gift of London's parks

Simon Pitkeathley, of Camden Town Unlimited, writes about the importance of urban parks and the complications of trying to create a new one - in London's busy metropolis....

London’s Royal Parks were born by accident, thanks to the unlikely combination of Henry VIII’s land-grab from the Church and his desire for convenient deer hunting; he probably didn’t mean to provide green space for generations of Londoners. The growth of public parks in the Victorian era was more deliberate, though played to sensibilities of the time, their reasoning ranged from enlightened (public health benefits) to elitist (controlling the leisure time of the working classes).

Through these accidents of history and misguided efforts we’ve been gifted London’s parks, our most authentic community asset. They are one of the few remaining genuinely free spaces, hotbeds of democratic participation, a link to nature for Londoners and shared by everyone regardless of class or background.

The Covid-19 pandemic has rocked everything, the word ‘unprecedented’ has lost all meaning and times are uncertain, but our parks are treasured like never before. For months they’ve been our only recreational and meeting spaces, nice for those lucky enough to have a garden, completely indispensable for those without. A recent survey found that 84% of people want more accessible nature-rich areas in the UK.

These days building a new park is complicated; stretched public funding means new parks are low on the priority list, and in London they’re competing with vital new homes for expensive land. To build a park in the 21st century you need to find a site that’s impractical for other uses and prepare an assortment of arguments to sell the idea to a range of funders and stakeholders.

Enter the Camden Highline....

Inspired by the hugely successful New York Highline, the Camden Highline is a plan to turn a disused railway viaduct into a new park in the sky. It will be exceptional new green space, offering a unique perspective on the city and linking Camden Market, Camden Road, Camley Street and Kings Cross’ to each other and to their local communities.

The beauty of the Highline is that it has the potential to transform otherwise unusable space into a London landmark. It weaves through some of the highest density housing in Camden and will provide £5 million worth of health and social benefits to local people, along with benefits to local businesses, transport services and landowners. By its very nature it will serve to connect local communities to new developments and to their local High Street, creating a more cohesive Camden.

Parks should serve the entire community, and the Highline will only be built with the support of residents, businesses, funders and government alike. The Highline has a community-based, bottom up approach and has been organically grown through community engagement and crowd funding campaigns.

Post COVID-19, we have an opportunity to work together to reimagine our cities, and the Highline serves as an example of how this can be done - through combining the timeless idea of a park with an exciting opportunity for urban design.

Working with Colander Associates, we have just launched a competition to find a design team with the right skills and ethos, for the Highline, one that can lead a collaborative design process with local stakeholders.

Find out more here.