Park Life: on John Claudius Loudon, the father of the modern park

Arboretum et fruticetum Britannicum: an engraving from one of Loudon’s books. Image: Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

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.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.