We do parks all wrong in the UK. For a green and pleasant land, our attitude towards green space in urban areas is seriously messed up. It’s not something we tend to question as we lounge on the grass of a summer’s day, but since I visited various towns in Scandinavia, the differences are starting to hurt.
We all know about the creeping problem of privately owned public space: the spaces that look open and inviting, until you try and do something like take a photo, conduct an interview or sit on a grassy chaise longue.
This is not really a problem in Scandinavia. Officials from Stockholm and Luleå in Sweden confirmed to me that all of their public space is owned and managed by the city. As for restrictive by-laws, if you’ve ever been to Copenhagen, you’ll know that cracking open a beer in a park or square is practically mandatory to avoid paying the equivalent of a small nation’s GDP for a pint in a bar.
A grassy chaise longue for public use, no security guard in sight, in Luleå. Image: author provided.
There’s something else, too. Something so small that it’s easy to miss, and yet says everything. They don’t have railings around their parks.
We fence our public spaces off. We force people in and out of set gateways. We delineate the space. We create ‘parks’, not open spaces.
In Stockholm, Helsinki and Bergen, parks are things you meander into, across and through. They are natural adjuncts to the streetways, a pleasant shortcut, a place to pause for a few moments because you’re passing a bench anyway and you’re a bit early for that meeting and it seems nice.
In the UK, if I am at the south east corner of Park Square in Leeds and my destination lies at the north west, I can’t walk diagonally through. Railings force me round the edges. Same at Bloomsbury Square in London. Queen Square in Bristol is a lovely open space, needlessly surrounded by a waist-high wooden fence that funnels you towards paths. Desire lines be damned.
Scandinavia does have some boundary markers, but they tend to be low fences or flower beds that can easily be stepped over. When a physical barrier is needed, it’s often a hedge. A hedge is more forgiving than a spiked iron barricade. It apologetically requests, rather than demands, you follow a particular route.
And Scandinavia’s parks don’t close at night (Luleå’s Head of Parks and Nature, Michael Öhman, answers a query about whether the town’s parks close with a simple “No!”; that exclamation mark doing a lot of work). Ours do, because we have railings and gates. They put a massive blockage in front of pedestrians at night; plus, nobody’s told Google Maps, which keeps trying to send people through locked gates. I tip my hat to Holyrood Park in Edinburgh, which manages to be open 24 hours a day because – guess what – there are no railings.
And that’s before we even get to the green spaces that are wholly private, not even pretending to be public. All those leafy London squares where the likes of us aren’t allowed in, because the powers that be have decreed us unworthy.
Our ethos of building parks that keep people out is completely at odds with Scandinavia’s attitude. Stockholm’s city plan accepts that, although residents tend to live clustered near people who are like them:
“The streets, parks and squares of the inner city function partly as shared spaces for many Stockholmers, wherever they may live... In order to increase social integration, it is important to develop more shared meeting places in the future, where people with different backgrounds can see and meet one another in the natural course of their day.”
Some 40 per cent of Stockholm consists of parks and open green spaces. London claims to be 47 per cent green but that includes private gardens, which cover 14 per cent of the city, so really it’s one-third green open space. (That 40 per cent isn’t even the highest in the world, by the way; Moscow reports 54 per cent of its land being open green space.)
What we can’t tell from that reduced figure for London is just how much is genuinely available to everyone. But even with vast population disparities – London has about 8m more people than Stockholm, even Manchester has 1.5m more – we can still learn from Scandinavian attitudes.
How we interact with our surroundings affects how we see the world. If I can wander at will around my city, I feel that it belongs to me. If I’m shunted around, if I have to obediently use the designated access point to any public space, if I can’t even get in at all, that’s shutting me out. I feel less connected to my city and, by extension, my fellow citizens.
Scandinavia’s famously egalitarian society contributes to the unusually high sense of national wellbeing. While it’s not all perfect (I recommend you pick up The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth), an attitude that embraces people and their right to be in a space can be traced to that foundational assumption that everyone is equal. Our parks still smack of Victorian patricians who don’t entirely trust the common man to behave in a grassy area after dusk.
So here’s a theory: the more genuinely democratic a nation, the more its parks are accessible. And let’s stop with the railings.