ANDREW ADONIS: Parks are an “essential service” - lockdown has shown they need our attention

PUBLISHED: 10:31 14 May 2020 | UPDATED: 10:31 14 May 2020

An elderly couple sitting by the lake in Regent's Park, London. (Photo by Jo Hale/Getty Images)

An elderly couple sitting by the lake in Regent's Park, London. (Photo by Jo Hale/Getty Images)

2020 Jo Hale

The coronavirus lockdown has led to renewed appreciation of public parks, says ANDREW ADONIS. After it’s over, we need to develop them.

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For hundreds of millions worldwide, public parks have done more than anything to make the lockdown bearable. Among the most resented restrictions have been the closure of parks or the police stopping people from sitting in them.

Maybe I’m biased as a Londoner who lives close to Regent’s Park with its zoo, lakes, ducks, playing fields and fabulous rose gardens. But who can gainsay the green lungs from Richmond Park, Greenwich and Hampstead Heath through to Green Park, Hyde Park and St James’s Park with its pelicans and tulips right in the heart of Westminster?

Boris Johnson has been taking a daily constitutional around St James’s Park, disposable coffee cup in hand. A photo went viral this week of him being harangued by a member of the public, socially distanced. Someone tweeted it with the message: “It’s a privilege to live in a country where you can do this to the premier with zero repercussions. Don’t ever take it for granted.”

I hope we also take parks less for granted in future and do more to develop them. The deplorable state of so many parks, suffering under austerity budgets and without expert organisations like the Royal Parks Service to maintain them, is shameful and damaging to quality of life. For the millions who live in flats, a park is garden, playground, recreation centre, even living room and countryside, all in one.

“I’ve developed a whole new level of appreciation of our public parks during this pandemic,” blogs Brian Smith, a Green Party councillor in Belfast. “I’ve been up to Cregagh Glen and it brought me the head space I hadn’t realised I needed. I grew up in a block of flats with my mum and space, never mind head space, was in short supply.”

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Where parks are in short supply, they are no less valued. Councils often view their maintenance as a low priority, even a luxury, but that’s not the view of most voters. A survey in New York, notoriously short of parks but famously proud of Central Park, found 62% rating parks as essential a service as police, firefighting, and sanitation. Nearly everyone – 96% – agreed that parks “are a really important part of growing up in New York City”.

Among the most popular international policy initiatives of the last century and more has been the designation of national parks with special protection against development and guaranteed public access – except where, like the Peak District, they have been closed and besieged by drones set loose by Derbyshire police. The county’s chief constable last week announced his retirement, in the face of some of the sharpest criticism faced by any public official for anything that has happened as a result of Covid-19.

Yellowstone National Park in the US is also closed. But in place of drones the park service has created what it calls “an amazing virtual experience”.

Go on its website and you can watch Old Faithful erupt or see the Upper Geyser Basin, Mount Washburn and Yellowstone Lake. You can also ‘virtually explore’ many of the trails through interactive maps, photographs, sounds and videos.

I gave it a go. It’s the hiking equivalent of a Zoom drinks party: there is some sensation of the real thing, but only enough for you to pine for its return as soon as possible.

When Berlin’s botanical garden, which claims to be ‘the world in one garden’, reopened last week, the online ticket shop promised visitors “the fragrance of nectar in your nostrils, the sound of birdsong in your ear”. But only a thousand Berliners are being allowed in at any time and the glasshouses remain closed.

Shanghai’s Disneyland Park also reopened this week, after three months shut. Tickets sold out within minutes of going on sale. Never understated, Disney’s president said: “We hope the reopening serves as a beacon of light across the globe, providing hope and inspiration to everyone.”

For myself, I can’t think of anything to provide less hope and inspiration, even with Mickey Mouse masks. All I want is to be able to buy an ice cream by the bandstand in Regent’s Park. And sit and watch the swans.

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