Park Life: On Burgess Park, the ever growing open space in south London

A map of Burgess Park today. Image: Open Street Map/Wikimedia Commons.

As anyone who’s taken a night bus in South East London can attest, the last place on Earth you want to find yourself stuck is halfway up the Walworth Road between the Elephant and Camberwell. And yet that’s the fate of Burgess Park, a green wedge whose other end reaches the Old Kent Road.

But it wasn’t always thus: once this was all fields or whatever it is actually goes on in the countryside. Then with the 1800s came INDUSTRY – a canal came through, London came down, and the open land had vanished under houses and factories. Later that century you’d get various philanthropists and do-gooders suggesting that at the very least it might be nice to let miserably poor people stand on a bit of grass while they’re being miserable and poor, but it was too late for this particular bit of London.

And then came the greatest force in British urban planning: the Luftwaffe. They dropped enough bombs on it for Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s 1943 County of London Plan to recommend it as a site for new green space – something the immediate area was already sorely lacking, and would require even more of thanks to plans to develop housing estates in the area. (An irony: as the wheel of regeneration has turned, those estates have since come under threat or even outright demolished, possibly in part because the nice green park makes an ideal place for a property developer to stick some nice posh flats next to.)

The area in 1945. Image: Ordnance Survey.

As it turned out, creating the new park was not exactly an overnight endeavour. For a start, while there had been bomb damage, it was far from total obliteration, and plenty of people still lived and worked in the area. Until the 1960s it remained the site of factories producing R. White’s lemonade (local legend states that this was on occasion used to put out fires after bombing raids) and bibles (praise be to him for giving us this lemonade, presumably).


Slowly local authorities, and eventually the Greater London Council, acquired land, as the factories closed and houses were deemed unfit for habitation. But this work was sloooow (which, to be fair, the Abercrombie Plan had predicted it would be). By the 1970s, thirty years after the idea had been proposed, the site was still something of a patchwork. And it didn’t even have a proper name, just a bureaucratic designation as “North Camberwell Open Space”.

Finding a permanent name for it appears to have been something of a headache. A Name That Park competition was tried - local authorities, don’t try this now unless you want a park named #ParkyMcParkFaceLOLFBPE - and either through that or inertia, the park briefly got the name ‘St George’s’ presumably after the nearby church. Finally, in 1974, it gained the name it's been known by since - in honour of Jessie Burgess, the first female mayor of Camberwell.

The somewhat sedate progress made the whole enterprise slightly contentious – especially if you were one of the people who’d been already been kicked out of your home for it, one imagines. There were even proposals to abandon the idea entirely and Build More Bloody Houses™ – but these were fought off, and by 1982 the park had even acquired a lake, whose bottom could boast that it was had the largest plastic sheet lining in the world.

Sadly it is lacking what might have seemed like a more obvious water feature: the canal which ran through the site for nearly 150 years. Shut down in the 1940s because road transport made its original purpose redundant, it was filled in and gone by 1960. No-one foresaw that one day post-industrial urban waterways could become attractive features in their own right: the disused canal was a dangerous rubbish dump you had to warn your kids to stay away from. The most obvious evidence for its existence is one of the park’s more notable sights: a bridge over nothing, leading you nowhere.

The bridge to nowhere. Image: Robin Stott.

As late as the early 21st century Burgess Park still had the feeling of being somewhat unloved, crisscrossed with bits of abandoned road that no-one had bothered to do anything about. In a rare moment of not being totally crap in 2009, Boris Johnson launched his “Help a London Park” scheme which among other things invested £2 million in sorting Burgess Park out once and for all. While this was broadly speaking good news for the local community, it was also linked to wider “regeneration” efforts in the area, i.e. trying to kick existing residents out of the nearby Aylesbury estate for the purposes of knocking it down and gentrifying it.

So is Burgess Park finally finished? Maybe not – In 2013 it acquired a flashy new BMX track thanks to an Olympic Legacy Fund. And Southwark Council still occasionally seem to be finding bits of land to buy up: in 2015, a new entrance was opened on the site of a former architectural salvage yard. Maybe they’ll just keep going, buying up more and more land until it achieves its ultimate form. ALL HAIL THE MEGABURGESS, LORD OF ALL PARKS.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.