Full circle for the National Trust on parks

Earlier this year, we put out our new 10 year strategy for the National Trust, aiming to respond to what the nation needs from us in the 21st century. Part of what it needs, we think, is our help to look after the places where people live, including the challenging time parks face as budgets are cut.

In this blog post, Tom Seaward and Victoria Bradford-Keegan give a bit of historical context for our work, and some early learning from our work in Sheffield looking at the possibility of raising an endowment for the city’s parks (from a presentation at the University of Sheffield’s Paxton 150 conference).

In 1884 William John Evelyn, Conservative MP, landowner and descendant of the seventeenth century polymath John Evelyn, wrote to National Trust founder Octavia Hill with a question that was to have a profound effect on the protection of heritage in Britain.

Over the previous decade, Evelyn had purchased all that remained of his famous ancestor’s garden in South London. He planned a public park and museum to the memory of John Evelyn.

Faced with the question of how to secure the future of the park and museum, Evelyn wrote to Octavia Hill, London social worker and green space campaigner.

Neither Hill nor her friend Robert Hunter, a solicitor who had cut his teeth on legal efforts to prevent the enclosure of Commons, could find any existing group to take on the park and the museum.

The only glimmer of hope Hunter offered was the suggestion of ‘an Association for the management of land and Museums […] constituted under the Joint Stock Companies Act.’

The advice went unheeded and the garden opened in 1886. Ownership passed to the Corporation of the City of London, then to London County Council and, eventually, to the Borough of Lewisham. After centuries of decline, the garden finds itself at the heart of one of the largest residential developments in London.

For Hill and Hunter the prospect of saving Sayes Court died, but Hunter’s idea for a Joint Stock Company to protect spaces did not.

In Hunter’s response to Evelyn’s enquiry we can see the seeds of what would become the National Trust – formally established in 1895.

120 years later, the National Trust is returning to its roots: working to protect the green spaces where people live. We are leading a project in Sheffield – one of 11 in the Rethinking Parks Programme – to test whether it’s possible to raise an endowment for a whole city’s parks.

Sayes Court Garden, those who worked to protect it in the 1880s and the wider open space movement out of which they emerged are interesting for the lessons they offer on how we can face up to the crisis facing parks and green spaces today.

Lesson one: get your governance right

The challenge for Sayes Court was a legal one: what structures or vehicles are there to protect and manage buildings and open spaces together?

Lesson two: see the state as an enabler, harnessing the power of citizens

Whilst local authorities remain the major group offering protection for green spaces, they’re increasingly painting themselves as enabling citizens to look after places: whether asset transfers to Friends Groups or developing new models for ‘parks improvement districts’.

Lesson three: Be clear why parks matter for a healthy society

Octavia Hill understood that parks matter for the benefits they offer to people’s wellbeing.

Famously, she wrote in an 1888 essay that ‘the need of air, and I believe the sight of sky and of things growing, seem human needs, common to all men.’

Parks were a public health tool.

So, it’s the Public Health Act of 1875 that opens the way to local authorities borrowing money to create parks. We see parks justified for the gains they offered in terms of creating a healthy population and workforce.

Today, whilst there is growing evidence of the health benefits of green spaces, parks struggle for air time among the wealth of other calls on health budgets. But the link is fundamental, and as argued by the Kings Fund in a recent blog, ignored at our peril.

Lesson four: Parks are political

Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter came of age at a time when the protection of open spaces was high up the political agenda.

As campaigners we’ve grown reliant on what Octavia Hill would call ‘tables of statistics and maps’.

We’ve tried to win the data argument and failed.

Now, in Octavia Hill’s words, we need to ‘translate it back to life’ and employ the kind of legal, emotional and lobbying techniques that Hill and Hunter were pushing in the nineteenth century.

In the process, we’ll start to turn the new young activists. And who knows, perhaps they’ll end up setting up a National Trust for the 21st century.

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