Park Life: A brief history of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

An entertainment in Vauxhall Gardens in about 1779, by Thomas Rowlandson. Image: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons.

We can date the park in its modern form to the 19th century. But the idea of a greenish-space for various kind of recreation is considerably older (e.g. probably: a hunter chasing a wooly mammoth passes a nice bit of grassland on a sunny day and decides to sack it off).

In the 17th and 18th centuries in particular, many of the functions of a modern park were fulfilled by “pleasure gardens”: sort of early modern theme parks that promised the finest recreations and entertainments. Very few of these have survived in anything approximating their original form – although sometimes portions survive as small city parks, and associated public houses linger, if only in name.

The big daddy pleasure garden, probably most famous and widely imitated, was Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Originally opened in 1660 as the New Spring Garden, basically just a nice bit of garden to walk around in, it initially generated cash by flogging refreshments. Early blogger Samuel Pepys was apparently fond of the lobster.

Over the years, its business model evolved. By the 1700s, it was charging for entrance and was making its name as music venue, the proprietors having constructed a concert hall (with its own organ, organ fans). People of all classes flocked to Vauxhall – “even Bishops (we are assured) have been seen in this Recess without injuring their Character”, records a contemporary guidebook.

A prospect of the gardens, c1751. Image: Samuel Wale/1751. 

As they hadn’t bothered to build Vauxhall Bridge yet, visitors’ first experience would typically involve arriving in a boat to find “a crowd of people bawling, and swearing, and quarrelling”, which you had to fight your way through to hand over a shilling and enter the gardens. At night these were lit by thousands of lamps, which was itself enough excitement for most people back then who didn’t need a Nintendo GameBoy like you awful millennials.

After walking about for a bit you’d head to the concert, then at half-time spent 4 pence on a quart of beer or 8 shillings on a bottle of champagne. The food was legendary, but not necessarily for the right reasons. Chickens were apparently “sparrow-sized” and slices of meat were reputed to be so thin you could read a newspaper through them. One legend stated that the carver earned his job after covering the entire gardens in slices of a single ham.

With competition hotting up – Royal Surrey Gardens and Cuper's Gardens within walking distance, and Ranelagh and Cremorne Gardens over the river in Chelsea – the range of attractions increased. Fireworks had become one of the era’s most popular attractions, so a 60-foot high tower was constructed for the purposes of important firework deployment.

In 1827 the park restaged the Battle of Waterloo with 1,000 combatants. The “battleground” was subsequently reconfigured into the “North Pole”, and then ‘Venice’. One flyer promises an EXTRAORDINARY NOVELTY: a Mr Green will ascend in a balloon while riding a horse, and if you wouldn’t pay to see that recreated you are either a fool or a liar.


The gardens even got royal approval. As a prince, King George IV had been a big fan, so when he finally got the big chair, they became The Royal Gardens, Vauxhall. It was famous enough that some imitators really didn’t bother to disguise what they were doing. Copenhagen’s Tivoli, the world’s second oldest theme park, started life as the Tivoli & Vauxhall pleasure garden (the owner’s pitch to Denmark’s king: “When the people are amusing themselves, they do not think about politics”). There was also a Vauxhall Gardens in Birmingham, though it’s unclear whether it made up for being in Birmingham.

As times moved on, the original struggled to maintain a profit, and in a prescient turn it even started generating noise complaints from the neighbours who had all definitely lived there since 1660. It was flogged off, and after one final firework display in 1859, building developers moved in and obliterated it.

After slum clearances a small park was developed on part of the original site, behind the  railway lines at Vauxhall it. It was given the name Spring Gardens, the original name of the Pleasure Gardens, but clearly in 2012 someone at the council thought “fuck it” and cut to the chase, so Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens lives again in name. In the 1990s you could even go up in a balloon to see what London looks like when you go up in a balloon (because they hadn’t invented the London Eye yet). And then go to the strip club.

Extant ‘entertainments’ include a small city farm (home to some unlikely alpacas, shoved in with the sheep) and a theatre (which replaced the strip club; sorry nudity fans) that went viral for 3 minutes after insulting potential applications in a job advert. And in a way, isn’t “viral content” the “pleasure garden” of the 21st century? Really makes u think.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.