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Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

How London’s parks saved us in the city’s weirdest year

In 2020, parks have been at the centre of everything from socialising to social change. This is how we rekindled our relationship with them

By
Alexandra Sims
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When hundreds of horses descended on Greenwich Park for the London 2012 Summer Olympics’ equestrian tournament, park manager Graham thought he’d seen its most exceptional year ever. That was until the pandemic. ‘I didn’t think working in the park could get more extraordinary,’ he says. ‘But this year has been bizarre in a completely different way.’

During lockdown, Graham saw the Royal Park transform. More joggers than he’d ever seen before jostled their way down the manicured paths. The 25 bike racks were barely enough for the wobbling mass of cyclists that arrived. Parents taught kids to ride scooters and bikes in deserted car parks. As restrictions eased, Graham watched every inch of grass fill with people picnicking. And while pubs and clubs stayed shuttered, more young people started hanging out on the lawns. A visitor survey found that some locals were exploring the park for the very first time and people were staying for longer.

Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

The same thing happened across the city. As Covid upended our lives, parks became reassuring constants, fixed spaces of green that welcomed us like old friends when all seemed lost. For the one in five Londoners who have no access to private gardens, they became gyms, safe places to meet parents and wild escapes. (It’s no wonder that when Victoria Park and Brockwell Park were closed by councils in March and April there was public outcry.)

For Graham, it felt like a whole new generation was discovering the joy of London’s green spaces. ‘I’ve worked here for 11 years, and this last five months have been the busiest I’ve ever seen,’ he says. ‘There are so many downsides to this terrible pandemic, but it’s fascinating to see people valuing the park.’

First glimpses of green

Hannah’s daughter Isla has spent half her life in lockdown. Calls to stay indoors began when she was seven months old. Parks were a godsend: the only places where Hannah could show her daughter there was more to the world than the cramped little flat where they live.

Lockdown struck swiftly. Hannah, an opera singer, and her husband, a director, lost eight months of work in the space of three days. They made a promise that every other day they would go out to a park, breathe fresh air, find some beauty in the world. Hannah scrolled through Google Maps looking for new patches of green to explore. The family drove to parks they’d never visited. They plopped Isla down on Fortune Green in Hampstead so she could see other children for the first time. 

‘When we look back on this time, we’ll remember it as the year we sat together on a million different patches of grass,’ says Hannah.

In July, she brought bunting, picnic rugs and bowls piled with Quavers and Wotsits to Regent’s Park for Isla’s first birthday. After weeks of only Zoom calls, it was weird and brilliant seeing loved ones in the flesh: to look them in the eye, to hear their laughter.

The return of noise

For months parks were almost silent. The only sounds were the footsteps of lone figures traipsing on their edges, the burr of a podcast leaking from their headphones. Then came snippets of chatter as people started hanging out in twos. Summer arrived with speakers blaring music. You could tell which couples were on dates, which trees were being used as toilets. Eventually, cheers, instruments and shouts joined the hubbub as impromptu concerts and gym classes popped up. Some club-starved city dwellers gathered in illegal raves.

Nina, a poet and performance artist, found herself blasting out spoken word alongside free-styling jazz musicians and singers at a jam session on Hilly Fields. A sound system thudded with drums and bass guitars. ‘I’m used to the liveliness of an audience, feeding off strangers’ energy,’ she says. ‘The park gave me that feeling again.’ In Mile End Park, zumba instructor Antonella started leading socially distanced classes. When she played her soundtrack of salsa and hip hop, passers-by stopped to join in and picnickers whooped along. ‘Sharing my passion with all those people after weeks of teaching virtually was totally exhilarating,’ she says.

Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Lambeth Wind Orchestra played together for the first time since lockdown in August. In quiet, secluded corners of Brockwell Park and Ruskin Park the orchestra started getting the band back together, piece by piece.

The group has a new repertoire. It’s playing uplifting pieces about coming together, getting stronger, looking beyond trouble: ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, ‘Lean on Me’, Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’. But, it’s bittersweet.

When conductor John takes pictures of the rehearsals, he thinks of the people who aren’t there: some members are still shielding, not comfortable leaving their homes. John wishes there was a way to bring everyone back together but he doesn’t know when that will be.

Plagues and protests

This year is not the first time that parks have helped make history. When 75,000 people died during the Great Plague in 1665, Londoners retreated to makeshift camps on green spaces away from the crammed medieval streets. After the Great Fire in 1666, Londoners whose houses were charred to ashes found a home in camps at Moorfields (now Finsbury Circus). During World War II, swathes of Hyde Park were converted into allotments to help feed the city.

For centuries, London’s green spaces have offered sanctuary and been co-opted for crisis management. And they have equally given us spaces to march and protest. People have packed into parks to demand votes for women and LGBTQ+ rights, support the miners’ strikes or rail against the Iraq War and student fees.

Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

In June, as Black Lives Matter rallies spread across London, spurred by the tragic death of George Floyd in the USA, Shane* had his own vision of a safe, peaceful protest in Newington Green, the place where he’d grown up.

Over the last decade, Shane watched as gentrification tightened its grip on the north London area. Local shops became fancy bistros and bakeries, while estates remained unloved. Shane’s mother had raised him to be a freedom fighter, to always stand up for what he believed in. She passed away two years ago. ‘I realised this year, ’ says Shane. ‘I have strength to bring people together, give things back to the community and fight injustice.’ He decided he was going to ‘bring the protest back home’ for his community and his mum.

In June, Shane began The People Protest with a bunch of strangers. The collective planned a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration in Newington Green Park, with spoken word, reggae bands and local heroes. When June 13 came, 2,000 people arrived at the scruffy patch of grass sandwiched in the middle of a roundabout, to raise their fists in solidarity. They staged two more rallies on the green: an event honouring the Windrush Generation and a talent contest.

Over the summer, Shane noticed other small groups using the park to raise their fists together and clap the NHS. Lots of people use it now, like Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, he explains. ‘I feel proud of that,’ says Shane. ‘I know my mum would be.’

A renewed appreciation

There have been some downsides to our renewed love of these green spaces, says Graham, the park manager. Greenwich Park’s rubbish trebled over the summer and having to keep public toilets closed while visitor numbers soared was frustrating. But the negatives are far outweighed by the positives.

Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

In the 1840s, life expectancy in Bethnal Green was little over 30 years, its winding streets foul with dirt and rubbish. In this squalid setting, Victoria Park – London’s first public park – popped up like a paradise among slums and cesspits. It was never officially opened, but was taken over immediately by locals who had never seen such rolling fields or beautiful trees or delicate, colourful flowers.

Now, nearly 200 years later, Londoners have flooded their parks again, seeing these green spaces through the same excited eyes as those Victorians, rather than as the jaded twenty-first-century city dwellers we’d become. We’ve laughed, cried and connected with strangers on shared bits of grass. Some Londoners have discovered new parts of their city, others have found a renewed appreciation for the nature on their doorstep.

A Greenwich local, Graham strolls around the park even when he’s not working. He never gets bored of it. Each day brings a tree he hasn’t noticed before or a conversation with someone new. 
At the top of the park’s 50-metre-high slope, he’ll stop and take in the view of Canary Wharf. Every time he looks at it, it’s different. 
The light changes, illuminating some new glass box that’s thrust its way into the skyline. ‘[This park] is an incredible place,’ says Graham. ‘I’m so glad more people are seeing that too.’

*Name has been changed.

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