Victoria Park. Photo: Wikimedia Commons Victoria Park. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Closing parks is a counterproductive act of petty authoritarianism, argue Alistair Cartwright and Chris Nineham

East London’s Victoria Park has been closed for almost two weeks now following a decision by Tower Hamlets Council and the central east command of the Met Police. Citing ‘unmanageable’ ‘crowds’, a Council spokesperson blamed people ‘holding picnics, drinking, sunbathing and playing football’.

True, there may have been some people not adhering to social distancing rules, but closing the biggest park in the borough will only push large numbers into smaller remaining green spaces, towpaths and pavements. At 213 acres, the park is a hugely important space for people across east London. For those in flats and multiple occupancy homes without access to a garden and having to share smaller living spaces, the decision is particularly egregious. This is yet another decision that shows up how the crisis affects working class people more than the wealthy. 

The decision to close Victoria park chimes with attempts by the government and the media to shift the blame for the crisis onto individuals. A couple of weeks ago it was ‘hoarders’ being ritually shamed in the Sun and the Daily Mail, when what was really happening was more people cooking at home had pushed demand above the inelastic limits of supermarkets’ ‘just-in-time’ supply chains. Now there’s a new scapegoat – the selfish sunbather.

But let’s just ask who is the real irresponsible minority, this dithering government that wrecked the NHS and refused to embrace mass testing against the advice of the WHO, or people lying in the sun and playing football?

The People’s Park

One of the ironies of the situation is that Victoria Park was created in response to the great cholera and typhus outbreaks in the 1830s and popular demands for space for health and recreation.

For decades, Eastenders had been campaigning for sanitation reform as the population expanded rapidly and the new docks wrecked whole communities. Their demands were contemptuously ignored. Calls for a new sewer in Wapping were rejected by the local Commission of Sewers on the grounds that the area had been ‘little better than a swamp since time immemorial, and the inhabitants were no more inconvenienced than they were forty years ago’. Cholera and typhus outbreaks concentrated some medical minds on these issues, and Poor Law Commissioners discovered that large parts of the East End, in particular Bethnal Green and Whitechapel, were ‘constant seats of fever, from which the disease is never absent’.

A select committee on Public Walks and Places of Exercise in 1833 raised the idea of an East End park for the first time. Its report noted that many open spaces had been built over as the population of Tower Hamlets had spiralled to 400,000 and that people in the West End had access to numerous public spaces. Fresh air and walking would help to improve health and open space would limit the spread of disease. The committee also felt that exercise and recreation would stop the lower classes pursuing ‘low and debasing pleasures’ like drinking, dog fights and bowling matches.

Still nothing happened. It took a campaign of public meetings and popular petitioning started in 1840 to force the authorities to act. 30,000 people signed the petition which was presented to Queen Victoria. After she approved the idea, Parliament passed the Victoria Park Bill in 1842.

The idea of the Park was so popular the local population didn’t wait for the building to be finished or for an official opening; they just started using it in 1845. Local youth defied the ban on swimming in the Regent’s Canal too, forcing the authorities to build a swimming lake. Use of the Park has regularly been contested since. In 1847 the police tried – and failed –  to ban a massive Chartist gathering in the Park demanding votes for all. There were attempts to ban political meetings in the Park in 1862 and collections for political purposes in 1888. Both were overturned by protests and public meetings. Such actions earned it the title of the People’s Park.

Getting the Message

After this weekend’s sunny weather, Lambeth council closed Brockwell park, saying 3,000 people visited the park on Saturday; again, sunbathing and supposedly ‘large groups’ were said to be the problem. But photos in the Evening Standard meant to show up the culprits appear crowd-free, with clear blue skies and exemplary social distancing. After reopening Brockwell park on Monday, Lambeth warned residents the message should be ‘crystal clear’.

Words like these show what little regard some authorities have towards ordinary people. The only way we’ll get the ‘message’ is by punishing us like misbehaving school children. But other local leaders are raising serious doubts about this petty authoritarianism, which can easily grow into more serious crackdowns on civil liberties. 

Victoria Ward Councillors Clare Joseph, Katie Hanson and Penny Wrout said in a letter to the mayor of the borough, John Biggs:

‘Both Tower Hamlets and Hackney have many residents living in overcrowded flats around the park. They are now confined to their flats all day, often with many children off school, and we must continue to support them to get a little bit of fresh air, sunlight and exercise and see some green space. If we do not, we may help create a different kind of mental and physical health crisis.’

Even the Tory Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has warned that closing public open spaces should be ‘an absolute last resort’, at the risk of losing public confidence. Clearly some in government sense the public mood and are worried about a backlash. Chris Worman, a government adviser in the Parks Action Group said: ‘Closing parks is the wrong thing to do. The problem is you actually disperse the people and move the problem elsewhere.’

Those in positions of authority should get the message that thousands of us rely on Victoria Park to stay healthy, mentally and physically, and that closing large open spaces is plainly illogical. Rather than blaming individuals or fictitious ‘crowds’, there are a range of measures local councils could take to make parks friendlier to social-distancing. The gates and sections of fences could be removed to ease up bottlenecks, and if it gets busy, park wardens could be stationed at an appropriate distance to count people in. 

Closing parks is a counterproductive act of petty authoritarianism. The People’s Park should be reopened immediately for the benefit of all.

Sign the petition. Tweet Tower Hamlets Mayor @MayorJohnBiggs to help them get the message.

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