The global pandemic has illustrated the centrality of green community spaces to our emotional wellbeing, physical health and wider social cohesion.
Prior to coronavirus, we witnessed the growing commodification of our parks, commons and heaths through the encroachment of commercial ventures.
As lockdown measures ease and those shielding are also able to leave their homes, it has never been more critical to fight against the marketisation of green spaces and protect the principle of universal access for all.
On my daily walks during lockdown, I have found myself increasingly gravitating towards Tower Hamlets Cemetery.
In such tumultuous and uncertain times, it has been difficult not to be in awe of the stillness and peace the Cemetery has afforded.
As you enter the gates you are enveloped by a sea of graves shooting out of the foliage. The absence of traffic, voices and footsteps means the only sounds piercing the air are the shrieks of the birds. They hide from view high above walkers but their cries can be heard mimicking a strange xylophone in the trees.
The graves, with their ornate stone carvings, stand immutable against the sky and feel as timeless as any natural landform. They provide a portal to the lives of those long since moved on, offering the living a sense of interconnection with the city’s past.
Admittedly a cemetery is a very different space to a park, but I know my experience of the restorative nature of Tower Hamlets Cemetery is shared by many other city dwellers in relation to their own green community spaces.
Whilst key workers have kept the country going, millions of people have now spent months indoors, leading to home environments feeling claustrophobic and oppressive.
During the lockdown, green spaces have acted as keys which have allowed many of us to escape the insular birdcages of our minds.
Politically, our world also feels increasingly chaotic and splintered, but in green spaces it has been hard not to feel united with the wider community whilst sharing nature together.
We are all aware of the entrenched and deeply problematic inequalities which pervade every aspect of our society. The commodification of parks has the ability to further reinforce this by carving out separate spaces that are only available to those with the financial means to obtain admission.
In recent times we have seen the proliferation of private festivals in green community spaces. Of course this will not be the case this year, but every summer London parks host a growing number of music and social events.
These events are often unaffordable to many in local communities, and lead to noise disturbances and considerable sections of parks being sectioned off for long periods to residents.
Whilst these events are going on, there are also additional, hidden costs for residents like reduced access to public transportation, overcrowding in residential areas and increased rubbish.
In the case of Victoria Park, East London’s largest park, this phenomenon of commodification is particularly alarming as it undermines the tradition of openness the park was founded in.
Although Victoria Park has not been part of Hackney since 1994, it is still popularly considered to be one of the borough’s local parks.
It was originally constructed in response to a public health crisis acutely affecting the East End population it was built to serve. It was the mid-19th century, when living conditions and air quality were so poor that the area had a far greater death rate than anywhere else in London.
At the time there were no green spaces in the East End, so it was thought that the creation of a park would prevent further health problems arising in the beleaguered populace.
The park was subsequently opened in 1845 and later visited by its namesake, Queen Victoria, in 1873.
Victoria Park is of particular historical significance as it is believed to be the first park in the world to have been purposely constructed to address the health concerns of local people.
Research undertaken at the University of Westminster in 2018 found local authorities were increasingly using private festivals in parks as a means to supplement their revenues.
In the era of coronavirus, when councils are expected to lose substantial amounts of income from decreases in council tax and business rates, it is unclear what the long term implications might be for green spaces.
Only last week it was reported that our national debt is now higher than our economy’s total worth, whilst the Local Government Association announced that without further government intervention councils are at risk of an additional £6 billion shortfall.
Given the catastrophic economic forecasts, it is unclear whether the expected recession will accelerate the trend towards commodifying parks.
The end result of allowing private companies to charge steep prices to access vast swathes of parks for festivals or leisure activities is that whole sections of green spaces are off limits to those who do not have the currency to purchase entry.
In turn, this creates separate demarcated zones for those who can afford to take part, leaving others forced to assume the role of spectators on the sidelines – a two tier system in our community green spaces based on levels of income.
The marketisation of green community spaces has occurred against a backdrop of the public realm becoming increasingly privatised.
Many areas of our city are already owned by private companies, although this is not necessarily widely publicised. These include preeminent locations in London such as Paternoster Square near St Paul’s Cathedral, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and Granary Square in King’s Cross.
This means companies can decide who has access to these sites and are theoretically able to eject members of the public they deem to be undesirable without having to provide their reasoning, limiting our freedom of movement around the city.
Our current housing crisis must serve as a warning of the terrible consequences of privatising public property. The present dearth of social housing has primarily been caused by selling off council homes.
This deficit has resulted in families and vulnerable adults waiting for years for adequate housing or being moved away from London by local authorities to other parts of the country where they have no connections.
The fear is that the commodification of green spaces will serve as a gateway for complete privatisation, ultimately resulting in these spaces only being accessible to those with adequate funds.
Given the manifold benefits of nature on human beings, this would be nothing short of a travesty.
One of the most celebrated English poems about the transformative power of nature is William Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.
In the poem, Wordsworth famously describes encountering a collection of daffodils whilst traversing the countryside and the way the vista uplifts his mood.
He juxtaposes the ephemeral physical appearance of the individual flowers blowing in the wind with the overarching eternality of the natural world, with the daffodils ‘Fluttering and dancing in the breeze / Continuous as the stars that shine and twinkle on the Milky Way’.
Wordsworth highlights the overwhelming power of nature over humans but also our lack of proper appreciation for the natural world, writing ‘A poet could not but be gay, / In such a jocund company: / I gazed – and gazed – but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought:’.
Although we may not all have Wordsworth’s poetic gift, lockdown has illuminated just how life-affirming our green spaces truly are, so as lockdown eases, we must not let these spaces be taken away.
Update: this article was amended at 14:00 on 29 June 2020. The original article featured an image of a different Victoria Park.