Public, Private and Pride

By Ellen Greenberg

Taking a break from obsessing about Brexit (who would have thought that even the “Leavers” would have no plan for victory???) to return to my work in progress from Before the Referendum. This is my second post inspired by Open Squares and Gardens weekend in London.  Read the first one, telling the story of the Inner Temple Gardens at A Jane Jacobs for the Engineering Set

After almost two years of peeking through iron fencing into the secure enclave of Park Square on my walk to work, I was delighted to enter this prime piece of West End green space during Open Squares and Gardens Weekend.  My delight was heightened inside, by both the expected and unexpected.  As I had expected, there were elegantly designed and tended gardens, a choice of places to linger, contrasting expansive lawn and intimate bowers, and a bit of whimsy. Unexpected was the tunnel between Park Square and Park Crescent, its “sister,” just across the very busy (re-named) Marylebone Road.

Mr and Mr plaid
A bit of whimsy inside Park Square

The tunnel is “the Nursemaid’s Passage,” created in response to an 1821 request from those who viewed crossing “the New Road” as “a matter of considerable danger at most times to children and of inconvenience to ladies.” Who were these petitioners?  They were owners and residents of a particularly prestigious spot in the capital with the privilege of access to these private gardens. Their homes surrounded the two enclosed open spaces, providing easy access to shared areas larger than any private back garden could have been.

two to tunnel 1
Headed south to the Nursemaid’s Tunnel

Park Square and Park Crescent, together with their surroundings, are evidence of one of the most well-known and well-preserved urban development schemes of Georgian London  – John Nash’s “Metropolitan Improvements.”  As shown in the plan (Park Square and Park Crescent are in the yellow box), the scope of Nash’s plan stretched from Regent’s Park in the north to St. James’ Park in the south.  During my visit I picked up a laminated guide for Open Gardens weekend that provided the following capsule history of the two gardens as well as the wider plan:

Nash metropolitan plan crop
Nash’s Metropolitan Improvements, Figure 88 Scanned from Summerson’s Georgian London (highlight addded)

 

The gardens were set out on land appropriated from the Abbess of Barking by the crown after 1538, when it became a royal deer park. Following the end of a long lease to the Duke of Portland, the land returned to Crown management in 1811 and became part of a new venture in town planning designed by architect John Nash for the creation of a grand residential parkland, based on picturesque principles. The scheme for what became known as The Regent’s Park formed just part of a much larger plan which linked this fast developing area of residential London with the centres of royal and parliamentary power at Westminster, via the new road of Regent’s Street. A great royal thoroughfare could then run from the Prince Regent’s palace at Carlton House on Pall Mall, north to the new park.  Nash’s scheme was ambitious and innovative by any standards, on a scale hardly witnessed before or since. It remains a remarkable achievement, even though he was much criticised personally during his lifetime. Nash’s great and enduring contribution to the streetscape and layout of this part of west London is only now being fully recognised. The combination of Park Square and Crescent was designed to form a transitional entrance feature, leading the visitor from the formal streetscape of Portland Place in the south, to the green and picturesque parkland in the north.

from a garden guide prepared by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan for the Crown Estate Paving Commission, accessed in hard copy on 19 June 2016

Two Take-Aways

Two things struck me with particular force as I contemplated the gardens, their design and their many contributions to the city, both very relevant to today’s design, planning and management challenges. Based on the sources on Nash’s achievements that I’ve had a chance to review in the past few weeks, I must confess that my insights are not unique.

First —  Nash’s Metropolitan Improvements, connecting Royal Parks with a series of new thoroughfares lined by elegant buildings, are a stunning demonstration of a city-altering design succeeding at all scales. The detail of the two green spaces makes them a joy to be in, and even delightful to gaze into from outside the locked gates. More powerfully, these spaces are part of a much larger scheme that continues to work at the much larger scale.  As I try to unpick what it means for a design to “work” as a piece of the city, I think immediately of the fact that Nash’s contributions from Regent’s Park to St.James today are essential ingredients in place-making, recognisable and distinct. The buildings, albeit with centuries of renovation behind them (and more, and more controversial ones ahead) are handsome and varied. On Regent Street they form a spectacular ensemble, particularly when lit up at night.  Together the various aspects of the scheme – green spaces, facades, streets and paths, present places to live, to do business and to pass through, creating routes at a scale that make walking both appealing and practical as a means of getting across the city. Nash’s talents at many scales, so evident here, is widely recognised.

The second thing that struck me when visiting the usually-locked spaces that form part of the Nash design was the contrast they make with today’s gated communities. Those of us working in the States are all-too familiar with the crushing impact they have on public realm, on connectivity and on accessibility. The wholesale blocking-off of large tracts of land from through-movement and public access as a way to market to the “haves” contrasts sharply with the approach taken by Nash and the many others who created London’s shared private gardens.  They attracted affluent households with a privacy and elegance that enhanced rather than detracted from the public realm.  Just south of Regent’s Park this was viewed as a remarkable achievement because Nash’s project successfully extended the boundary of desirable London further north.. It was not simply the parks that attracted the upper classes – it was the connectivity. The combined attractions of Nash’s schemes are described by  John Summerson in  Georgian London:

If the nobility and professional classes were to be expected to live north of the New Road (hitherto the uttermost northward boundary of fashion), they would have to be provided with adequate access to Westminster, where Parliament, the Law Courts, and the Public Offices in Whitehall employed many of their daylight hours….Nash and Morgan presented something new – a daring and highly picturesque conception of a garden city for an aristocracy, supported by charming panoramas showing a composition of alluring groves and elegant architecture.

park cresccent inside out 2
Inside-out — Portland Crescent viewed from inside Park Crescent

I don’t know to what extent the successful marketing to “the nobility and professional classes” was attributable to the two beautiful parks that continue to shape the transition from Regent’s Park to central London. I do know, though, that Nash’s artful juxtaposition of modest and grand thoroughfares with intimate green spaces created an urban district that welcomes public gathering today.  This struck me more forcefully some weeks later when I found myself walking by the closed gates of Park Crescent as part of a contingent in London’s Pride Parade.  The streets that welcomed the Georgian upper classes with their handsome yet repetitive facades and perfect geometry in Nash’s day were in 2016 welcoming thousands of us celebrating our identity and individuality. Our route was briefly edged with the green of Park Crescent, and we certainly weren’t bothered by the locked gate as we continued on to Regent Street where crowds gathered to cheer us along this most public part of the route.


Update to my post (added 11 July): Max Jack, Director of the Crown Estate Paving Commission, has generously commented on my initial blog post with the following comment:

Some might say that you were taking a very rosy view of Nash’s objectives with respect to public access, but, as you say, it all seems to work quite well 190+ years on! It’s worth remembering that there were also gates at the junction of both arms of Park Crescent with the Marylebone Road, so your marching route would have been rather more limited had you tried to do it back in 19th Century.

another regent st pic
London Pride headed south from Portland Crescent to Oxford Circus

My appreciation goes to those who helped me satisfy my curiosity about Park Square and Park Crescent. The excellent information sheet I picked up during Open Gardens weekend led to an email exchange with Max Jack, Director of the Crown Estate Paving Commission, who was kind enough to provide a copy of a 2014 lecture on Nash by garden historian Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, author of the garden history handout.  Longstaffe-Gowan turns out to also be Chairman of the charity which runs the Open Squares Weekend, so I’m putting him on my list of favourite Londoners. He also turns out to be Landscape Advisor to the Crown Estate Paving Commission.  Thanks go as well to Julian Dawson, Arup Senior Librarian, for helping me locate a copy of John Summerson’s Georgian London and for introducing me to British History Online.

park square west ext
Park Square as I usually experience it – Outside-In

Throughout their history, the gardens and access to them, have been maintained by an entity specifically established to be the continuing guardian of these spaces – the Crown Estate Paving Commission. You can read about how the spaces are currently managed at:http://www.cepc.org.uk/

For more on Open Squares Weekend,

http://www.opensquares.org

and some additional images from my visits to Park Square and Crescent and Inner Temple Gardens are at Open Gardens Slideshow

For an amazing online resource on the history of the wider area (and try the phenomenal search engine for anything else you can dream of related to British History:

http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol19/pt2

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