Where did parks begin? Where was the first park? Who created it?
These questions aren’t actually as unanswerable as they might first appear. If you’re talking about purpose-built public parks as opposed to private gardens or common land, there’s an at least plausible answer in Derby, which at the very least is home to what might be the oldest extant example in Britain.
The Arboretum was created in 1840 by Joseph Strutt, a public-minded (ish) industrialist. His intricately landscaped park was designed to give the workers (e.g. the ones in his own cotton mills) somewhere for recreation and exercise on the two half-days off he generously gave them.
Loudon. Image: Royal Horticultural Society/Wikimedia Commons.
Strutt may have paid for it, but the real credit should perhaps go to its designer, John Claudius Loudon: he even provided the name, having been the first person to apply the word arboretum to curated botanical gardens. You thought you were having fun in a park: Loudon was trying to trick you into learning about trees.
Loudon is a now slightly obscure figure, having been eclipsed by those he influenced. A pseudo-self-made Scot (his father was a farmer who was at least successful enough to ensure his kid got an education), by the time he was 30 he’d made a fortune introducing new farming and gardening methods to southern England.
At this point, not dissuaded by – for example – the Napoleonic Wars, he sent himself on a Grand Tour of Europe. This was to, in his own words, cast off “confining coil of insular thought”, but he was especially seeking to increase his botanical knowledge. Along the way he picked up a strain of social liberalism, particularly focussed on the importance of public, ideally green, spaces.
Practical efforts in this area were hindered by discovering on his return from Europe that a dodgy investment meant he was broke, and later through health problems that highly excellent 19th-century medicine eventually attempted to cure by cutting off one of his arms. But he wrote extensively, contributing to the Encyclopedia Britannica and publishing Encyclopedias, magazines and various other works of his own, primarily on the subject of landscape gardening, but also tackling the design of everything from pubs to cemeteries.
The preservation and development of green space within the city was something Loudon thought about throughout his life. In fact, his first published writing was a letter about the importance of public squares in London as “breathing zones”.
One of his most intriguing ideas in this arena was sadly never developed, or at least never documented, beyond an initial thought: a proposal to surround London with a ‘promenade’, a circular route around the city that would link, to his mind, its most important features. It would run from Hyde Park, south over Vauxhall Bridge to the (now vanished) Vauxhall Gardens, then through south London to Greenwich Park. At that point, Loudon got really ambitious, with a proposed Thames crossing consisting of an iron bridge big enough for ships to sail under. On the other side the route would run in some unspecified way to meet what’s now the City Road, run up to Marylebone and back down to Hyde Park.
This proposal, which he charmingly noted would be inexpensive “with the exception of the bridge” (no, really?), would provide a day’s tour (presumably horse-propelled if you actually wanted enough time to stop and see anything) of the most interesting gardens, scenery and objects close to London. He was clearly on to something: not only the importance of urban green spaces in themselves, but the fact that within a city they could act almost in concert. Today London has several orbital walking routes which link its parks – although massive garden-based bridges, not so much.
Loudon’s green belt plan. Image: BuldingCentre.co.uk.
In 1829 “Hints on Breathing Places for the Metropolis, and for Country Towns and Villages, on fixed Principles”, Loudon would go on to make an even bolder proposal: not just for what we’d now call the green belt, but green belts plural, alternating rings of city and countryside/garden which as a city expanded could keep going until they hit the sea. Although he accepted the grandiosity of such a plan perhaps made it unlikely (the fact that the following year he married a science fiction novelist feels contextually notable here), he emphasises that the important thing is the basic principle: that towns and cities should be planned in such a way that no-one has to live more than a quarter mile from some kind of park, garden or piece of countryside.
Loudon may have seen his legacy as his writings: three years after completing the Arboretum in Derby, he died having spent almost every penny to his name on publishing various expansive and expensive tomes to share his knowledge and promote his ideas, which might seem to have been a bit of fool’s errand given no-one much reads them now. But it’s at least highly probable that Ebenezer Howard, father of the garden city movement, had read Loudon’s ideas.
And while that Derby park may not be world famous itself, it was highly influential on the parks that came after it – including something called Central Park in somewhere called New York, for which the Arboretum was a direct inspiration. Loudon lives on.