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1 April 2020updated 02 Apr 2020 11:10am

I have always appreciated London’s parks and its efforts to keep them open show the city at its best

In east London, Tower Hamlets Council has shut Victoria Park, meaning more people are being crowded into smaller places.

By Stephen Bush

When the lockdown ends I am, in no particular order, looking forward to seeing the following things: the wedding of one of my best friends, the newborn child of two old friends, my mother, a meal cooked by someone other than myself, and Kew Gardens. 

I can’t recall the exact details of my first trip to Kew but I do remember the journey: a seemingly endless ride with my mother on the London Underground from Bow in the East End of London out to the south-west of the capital. Like half of all Londoners, we lived in a flat, so whether it was to Kew or to the local park, trips outdoors always involved a journey of one kind or another. 

I took my last for the foreseeable future a few weeks ago: a swift ride on the London Overground from Hackney in the east out to the south-west. I still live in a flat, and although the government had yet to advise us to do anything more drastic than wash our hands regularly to curb the spread of Covid-19, my partner and I were both keenly aware that this might be our last opportunity for a while. 

Now, south-west London once again feels impossibly far away. So I’ve become more keenly appreciative of my local parks. I’ve always been fond of them, but until relatively recently, the main value I took from our parks was winning arguments. 

Like many native Londoners, I regard it as self-evident that London is the greatest city in the world. But also like many native Londoners, I haven’t travelled very far. I have visited Paris and Venice but not Berlin, Amsterdam, Beijing, Madrid, New York, Tokyo, Washington DC, Sydney or any other supposedly “great” city you might care to name.

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Whenever someone suggests that actually, London is all right, but it is peanuts compared to Barcelona or Tokyo, I have an escape clause: I peer down my glasses and tell them that London is superior because it has a more equitable distribution of parks than any other great city. Yes, Moscow has more green space, but it is easier to get to a park in any part of London than in any other capital city.

I have a confession: I don’t know if this is true. I can’t remember why I started saying it, but I am too committed to back out now. My parks factoid is a cover for the truth: that while I love living in an international city, I am in reality a very parochial person, who lives only a few miles from where they were born and plans to remain there until I die.

At the moment, that plan feels closer to coming to fruition than I’d like. Although I am not in an at-risk group, I have to accept that while London no longer leads the country in great restaurants, fantastic museums or excellent schools, because they have all been closed down, it still leads the rest of the United Kingdom in one way: its number of coronavirus cases. But I am as relaxed as it is possible to be about the downside of living in the capital.

My parks lie has become a half-truth: London has, at least for the moment, kept its parks open while many other cities have had to shut theirs. 

For people living in flats – which in London includes not only traditional housing estates like mine but the many large houses that have been converted into homes of multiple occupation – your park is your garden, your only place to breathe fresh air or to escape from those you live with. Combating coronavirus is the priority, but without our parks many people will end the battle against coronavirus in worse physical and mental health than they started it in. 

To make staying open safe, however, people have to follow the social distancing guidelines, and in the days since the government’s lockdown measures have come in, a new national sport has developed: criticising people for flouting the rules. All of the evidence suggests that most people are obeying them – and the majority who are not are trying to – but the appetite to find villains remains strong. Most of us feel pretty helpless in the face of a virus, but if the blame can be put, at least in part, on a reckless public, then we feel, however wrongly, that we have an enemy that can be seen and quickly defeated. 

Some politicians are doing a better job of standing against that impulse than others. One is Boris Johnson, whose government has kept most parks open nationwide. I suspect that were the Conservatives not led by someone with direct experience of running a major city, the government might have closed parks without thinking through the implications for people without gardens.

Not everyone has followed suit. Tower Hamlets Council has shut Victoria Park, very near to where I grew up. But Newham Council, Tower Hamlets’ neighbour to the east, has kept parks open, while Hackney Council, its neighbour to the north, has extended opening hours to aid social distancing. Both have put signs up detailing the regulations. As a result, in Newham and Hackney people are visiting the parks and following the guidelines, while in Tower Hamlets more people are being crowded into smaller places.

The three areas look roughly similar: there is no particular quality that means in the middle of east London people are rule-breakers while to the north and east we are civic-minded. The difference is that Hackney and Newham have assumed that people are trying their best and has armed them to follow the directives, while Tower Hamlets has started from the idea that they need to be forced to do so. 

And I think this, as much as the values and experience of those at the top, will be needed over the coming months: the willingness to approach the people of Britain not only with empathy about their lives and hopes, but with a kindness of outlook about their intentions, too.

This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special