The best park in the world is the Botanic Gardens in Belfast. It has the normal grassy areas and trees that all parks have and the added bonus of the Tropical Ravine, a humid greenhouse full of exotic rainforest plants; the Palm House, a colder greenhouse with more pedestrian plants, but still ones you wouldn’t see in a normal garden; an area with ponds, hanging trees and small bridges; and the rose gardens. None of these things charge for entry, and anyone can visit as often as they like. I quite often even see people using Botanic as a free backdrop for their wedding photos.
My own very fond associations with this particular park will always be from my teenage years, and memories of drinking cider, sitting on benches self-consciously reading books like On the Road, avoiding family arguments and conducting awkward dates. I’ll admit I’m probably biased in my ranking of the parks, but even when I went to New York and spent a sunny afternoon drinking beers in Central Park a few years ago it didn’t quite measure up to my memories of Botanic.
I’ve been thinking about parks a lot since last weekend, when I first started practising social distancing to help stall the spread of the coronavirus. The virus is so contagious it isn’t safe for us to be in close contact with people we don’t live with, if we can help it. Restaurants, bars and cafes were all told to close on Friday to deter people from meeting up in groups.
I’ll admit, a week in, I’m already finding the loss of a physical community psychologically difficult. Video calls just aren’t the same as physical meetings, no matter how high quality they are. More than that, there is something very sad about losing the potential for random encounters and knowing you won’t meet anyone you haven’t pre-arranged a call with, or anyone new, for months.
Of course, there are worse things than being denied pub trips. There are practical things we can do to help the most vulnerable and those who have lost work: signing up to a local mutual aid group (you can find yours here); scheduling regular calls with older relatives and immunocompromised friends who are completely isolated; checking in with friends who are financially precarious to see if any of them need money in the immediate term; and contacting local charities and foodbanks to find out when they need extra help.
Beyond that, though, this period is going to be stressful and unpleasant for everyone and we should try to find ways to mitigate this as much as possible. For me, parks are going to be a big part of that. There are two fairly close to my London flat and over the last week I’ve alternated between running in either of them every day. As long as you keep about 2m away from other people, parks remain a safe communal area. You can see strangers going about their day, living their lives. Even from a distance, this is a helpful reminder that the world is still turning.
It’s calming to be in nature too. One of the parks near me even has a pond with swans; I saw a pair of them yesterday slowly making their way around the perimeter together, doing what swans normally do. It made me smile to think they don’t have any idea any of this is happening. They were a good distraction; swans look so extremely weird. They look like they shouldn’t exist in real life; they are too white, their necks are too long, and their beaks too orange. If a designer who had never been to earth sat down to draw the animals who might live here I don’t think they’d ever come up with a swan.
Parks are kind of like that too, in a way. Imagine they didn’t exist and a left-wing politician proposed setting aside areas of the city, which could be used for luxury flats or corporate offices, to fill them with nature and have them free for everyone. I expect the response would be along the lines of, “But who’ll pay for it?!”
Interestingly, it was a very rich man named Joseph Strutt who paid for Britain’s first park, almost 200 years ago, in 1840. Strutt was a radical social reformer who wanted the working-class people of Derby, who he rightly saw as responsible for generating his family’s textile fortune, to have access to some of the same pleasures as the upper classes. He used his own money and land to build a park with free access two days a week and started the Victorian trend for building them.
A nice story, but we all know rich people don’t do things like that anymore.
Already the pandemic is prompting conversations about how ill-equipped capitalism is at dealing with crisis, and how much more the state could be doing to guarantee everyone’s safety. I hope we don’t forget our demands for job security, and a safety net, and proper funding for the health service when all this is over—but I hope we get braver too, about asking for more from the state beyond the basics. As local authorities have struggled to cope with a decade’s worth of austerity, parks have suffered. A recent investigation found local authorities had been forced to cut more than £15m from their parks and green spaces budgets between 2016/17 and 2018/19 alone.
On my way home yesterday, after seeing those swans, I walked past a row of big, grand houses that face on to the park. I don’t know how much value this proximity has added to each of them, but it would definitely feature in the top line in the estate agent’s brochure, wouldn’t it: “Stunning five bedroom Victorian townhouse, situated on the border of one of East London’s most scenic parks.” Still, however many hundreds of thousands that unobstructed park view costs from their windows, my access to this space is exactly the same as the people who live in those houses.