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.

 
 
 
 

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.