Park life: Where are the world’s smallest and largest parks?

This is technically inside a city park. Image: Paxson Woelber/Wikimedia Commons.

Burntwood in Staffordshire: the hometown of the discoverer of the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold on record, the lead singer of Reef, and Lightning from Gladiators. And, if you’re to believe the locals, the smallest park on the planet.

Prince’s Park, named for the future Edward VII in honour of his wedding, is certainly quite small: at an area of under 135m², you could fit 10,518 of it into Hyde Park, if you wanted to for some reason. Across the road from a church, it contains a single bench and precisely three trees, charmingly (or extremely dangerously if you’re a Richard Dawkins type) named Faith, Hope and Charity. Someone should measure them and check which is actually the greatest. But it is not ‘officially’ recognised as the smallest park in the world: stout-producing fact arbiters Guinness will only concede that it is the smallest in the UK.

Prince’s Park. Image: Geograph.org.uk.

The actual smallest park, according to whatever the modern day version of a McWhirter is, is Mill Ends Park in Portland, Oregon, where it occupies less than a third of m². But does it count as a park, or is it just a ‘glorified flower pot’, as an angry fan of Prince’s Park lashed out in 2013, while attempting to at least secure the park’s place in international records by making it the site of the world’s shortest fun run: 55 steps, apparently.

What are the important features of a park? Are three trees, a bench and a fence a minimum number of features? Is it enough features, or is Prince’s Park just a green or garden that got over-excited due to 1860s Royal wedding fever?


This definitional problem also affects the upper end of the park scale: if you’re looking for the largest park, do you include vast country parks that are basically just forests? Even if you exclude parks outside of urban areas, you end up with the largest being Chugach State Park in Alaska, which despite being larger than Greater London and containing actual mountains is technically speaking in the city of Anchorage. You’re going to need a hell of a redevelopment plan to try and beat that record.

And, having said all that, is Prince’s Park even the smallest park in Britain? A 2018 study by Ordnance Survey into Britain’s parks claimed the smallest is the Old Town Maritime Gardens in Hastings, at just 32.8m². Okay, it’s a boat with some flower pots in it sitting on some gravel, but can we argue with Ordnance Survey?
Maybe Burntwood can still make the case for its tiny park on the basis of nomenclature – argue that, if you want to be considered a park, you have to have the word park in the name. But even then, they might be stuffed, because in 2014 a local community in Darlington turned 25m² of land underneath a billboard which at the time was displaying a UKIP advert into Councillor Gerald Lee Park, named after Darlington’s litter-despising mayor. It has one bench, and two bushes. “Splendid hats” were donned the day it opened, it says here, but probably not by the local Labour party who were angry that it had been named after a Tory, and a living Tory at that.

As for the world title, Guinness hasn’t budged and Portland’s Mill Ends Park has kept its title since first receiving it in 1971. Originally a hole in the road for a lamp post that never got installed, it became a ‘park’ when a local journalist with the unlikely name of Dick Fagan, whose office overlooked the site, decided to stick some flowers in it. Or alternatively, according to Fagan himself: in 1948 he found a leprechaun and wished for a park, and the leprechaun tricked him and gave him the smallest park in the world. It has since survived reconstruction of the surrounding road, theft of its tree and even an occupying protest movement, Occupy Portland, which filled it with plastic soldiers in 2011 in an attempt to ‘go viral’ or something.

Dick Fagan was a columnist for the local newspaper, which is perhaps a bit of giveaway as to the real value of very small parks: providing something very tenuously interesting for bored journalists to write about when all other inspiration has left them.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.