Note: this was originally written in August during my recent trip to the United Kingdon.
It is not often that I find something that frustrates me enough to complain at fenceposts. Unfortunately, this is how my otherwise wonderful day in London ended on a warm summer evening in August.
In search of a park
I travelled to Kensington and bought dinner from a shop on the busy and relatively large shopping strip along Earl’s Court Road intending to find a nice quiet place to sit and enjoy my food. To my horror, all of the parks within walking distance were gated, padlocked and only accessible to those with a key.
Entrance gates were covered in notices from the local ‘parks committee’ sternly informing readers that access would only be granted to residents of specific properties nearby, subject to obeying a myriad of finicky by-laws. Even if you were lucky enough to live in one of the properties, you were required to also be a payee of the ‘Annual Garden Levy‘.
As an example, the Levy at Nevern Square is an eye-watering 34,000 pounds per year, according to the parks committee’s 2009 newsletter (the latest available on their website). This is about AU$56,000, or roughly the cost of several masters degrees, the annual salary of many university graduates or 56,000 McDonald’s hamburgers. The nearby Courtfield Gardens charges almost double – 65,000 pounds per annum (2016).
By order of the parks committee
I returned to my accommodation later after eating my dinner on the grass of a road median; not a very pleasant place. Rather flustered by my experience, I decided to look up some information on these parks and why they were so private and inaccessible.
The first result for one of the parks that I tried to patronise, Nevern Square, came up with a website for the local parks committee. For this one little park, there are no fewer than eight separate webpages of rules, regulations and bye-laws.
These range from the curiously specific – “each year owners of authorized dogs must produce to the Dog Owners Sub-Committee proof of up-to-date vaccination boosters” – to the patently absurd – “no children under 13 years of age shall be allowed in the Garden after sunset”.
I am sure that the park is very lively and the 10 or so people eligible to use the garden have a whale of a time.
Right to the city
Such a situation left me philosophically horrified. It had never even occurred to me that this could happen outside a gated community.
That certain people are allowed to exclude 99.99 percent of the population from a park simply by virtue of where they happen to live goes against the very purpose of public open space. It is a place for people to meet, recreate and relax. Human interactions occur, gardens are admired and games are played. Such places should be open for people to enjoy. As Jane Jacobs wrote:
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
From photos, the gardens look lovely and I am sure that its keepers put a lot of effort into maintenance. But what is the point if almost nobody is allowed to see the park?
Nowhere to sit
Even leaving aside the arguments relating to other residents, there is still the question of tourists.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea seems to want to attract visitors to the area, albeit with a slightly dated but still current tourism website. Earl’s Court Road is no Westminster Abbey, but does have a significant number of tourists generating an estimated 3.1 billion pounds for the Borough as of 2009.
This same study reported that over 75 percent of local residents appreciated the custom of visitors. That is great to know, but perhaps providing a couple of parks that tourists can actually access would not go amiss. At present, there are none whatsoever within walking distance of the Earl’s Court Road shops.
Parks are public goods. It is entirely self-defeating if we privatise open space and only make it available to a privileged few, especially when there are no other options available.
Jane Jacobs again:
“The more successfully a city mingles everyday diversity of uses and users in its everyday streets, the more successfully, casually (and economically) its people thereby enliven and support well-located parks that can thus give back grace and delight to their neighborhoods instead of vacuity. ”