Who owns London’s major parks – and why does it matter?

Hyde Park, London, from the air. Image: Getty.

Despite being the metropolitan hub of the UK, London is surprisingly green – 47 per cent green, in fact. Home to around 8m trees, the city has even been classified as a forest.

It’s no surprise, then, that London’s parks are central to the lives of many of its residents – myself included. On the alarmingly regular occasion that I feel ready to cough up clouds of soot, I make a habit of heading for a spot from which the signs of the city – cars, skyscrapers, pollution – are totally absent.

Over time, though, the little irregularities in the capital's parks have become apparent – not least the bizarre patchwork of ownership under which they find themselves.

Many of London’s most famous parks are royal: Bushy Park, Green Park, Greenwich Park, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Regent’s Park, Richmond Park, and St. James’s Park are all owned by the Crown Estate. Many of these were historically owned by the Royal family for recreation, deer hunting and the like. These days, they’ve been opened to lucky commoners like you and I, but only by the grace and favour of our ruling family.

But this isn’t the whole story. A few of London’s biggest – and most important – parks have escaped royal ownership. Let’s consider two: Victoria Park and Hampstead Heath.

The curious thing about Victoria Park is that, despite being London’s one major park that’s literally named after a queen, it’s not a Royal Park. Unlike many of the Royal Parks, its history is relatively recent: it shares its rootes with many other great municipal projects of the Victorian era.

In 1839, official statistics reported a death rate in much higher in the East End than than anywhere else in London. In the face of this poverty, a petition was presented to Queen Victoria calling on her to commission a park in the area, to improve the locals’ health and well-being. Just two years later, an act of parliament was passed to establish Victoria Park from what was then known as Bonner’s Fields.

Originally, the park was indeed owned by the Crown Estate. But as the century wore on, and it became known as “The People’s Park”, control was passed to municipal government, and eventually to the Greater London Council. When that was dissolved in 1986, Hackney and Tower Hamlets Councils briefly shared ownership, before the latter took full responsibility shortly thereafter.

The history of Hampstead Heath is more acrimonious. Originally owned by the London County Council and later the GLC, the Heath was the subject of a battle for ownership once the latter was dissolved.

Being located at the north-easternmost point of the modern borough of Camden, where it neighbours Barnet and Haringey, it was initially suggested that the three boroughs divide the park between them. This, of course, was unacceptable to everyone. After that, Camden bid for full ownership – which was unacceptable to the government.

So, after considering the three boroughs actually around the Heath, there was really only one logical solution left. That was to give it to the governing body of the City of London, five miles to its southeast.

Hampstead Heath, divided. Image: Ordnance Survey.

Thanks to the dispute, the City is much greener than you may expect. A place which the BBC claims is 100 per cent built-on now owns the largest area of common green space in London, bigger even than the City itself.

Our parks, then, have been shaped by both centuries-old inheritances and modern disagreements. All of this has a direct impact on how London works – and plays – today.

Except when I explained all this to a friend, he presented me with a question: “Why the hell does any of this matter?”

It’s hard to tell if he was interested.


Perhaps he’s right – whoever owns them, the parks seem to be running well, right? Maybe. But, as with most issues in local government, there are two big concerns – accountability and budgets.

As is the case with an alarmingly large number of things in the UK, the Royal Parks, although now managed by an agency of the DCMS, are ultimately controlled by the Royal family. Theoretically, this means that the Queen could shut down the parks on a whim. (Of course, this is the Queen, so I doubt we have much to worry about, at least until Charles’ succession.) Thankfully, the way the government is organised – the involvement of local council leaders in the agency responsible for the Royal Parks, for example – gives some democratic control.

Of greater concern may be the Corporation of London’s oversight of some of the capital’s green spaces well beyond the bounds of the City. Both physical distance and lack of accountability to the local residents may bring poor policy. It is hard to think of any other local authority which controls a significant landmark miles outside of its own borders. It is unclear how those who live near the Heath – or near to the Corporation’s other huge green space, at Epping Forest – might exercise any influence at all.

This is not just a theoretical problem: the Corporation’s decisions can have a direct impact on local life. Consider its recent proposals to turn a footpath across Hampstead Heath into a service road – proposals met by a storm of protests from local residents. (In this case, to be fair, public opinion prevailed.)

But there is one good thing about your local park being owned by the City of London Corporation: it is really, really rich. The same cannot be said for Tower Hamlets which, like every other council in the country, has seen its budget slashed by around half over the last eight years.

With cuts like these, it is unsurprising it sometimes takes unpopular decisions, like its recent threats of a month long closure to make some money. Turns out, it’s not the prospect of the Royal family shutting their parks that should worry us – it’s the grace and favour of this government.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.