Lessons from my local park

Ten minutes’ walk from my house in Abingdon is Albert Park. During the current pandemic lockdown, it’s become a daily part of my life, for an afternoon or evening walk. It’s become an extension of our garden, and a place for my 2-year-old daughter to stretch her legs (and see lots of dogs).

Formerly known as Conduit Field, in 1860 the new park was laid out as the centrepiece of a suburban residential development on the edge of the existing town. Today it is managed, as it has been since the 16th Century, by Christ’s Hospital of Abingdon, a local charity that still provides almshouses in the town. To the north is an arc of large and beautiful houses, and to the south a grid of streets with a mix of terraces and semi-detached homes, churches and a school. The eastern side of the park fronts a grand private school with playing fields. Within the park, a mini-arboretum of grand trees surround a large open field, a bowling green and a formal memorial to Prince Albert. Dogs run, children play, runners do the circuit.

The human value of the park in the current crisis is clear – a place of escape and recreation. Big enough to give the surrounding population space to stretch out, but compact enough to walk through quickly. Other values are also clear – the area is the most desirable in the town with even the small terraces nearby attracting premiums.

As an urban designer, I’ve pondered the lessons we can take from Albert Park for the design of future places and neighbourhoods.

Although ‘formal’, nature has space to thrive, and the park contains a variety of spaces and recreation. It’s not a ‘centre’ – there are no shops or cafes, but it is near two schools and is a clear centre of activity and defines the character of the area. It’s quite big – 300m x 220m – but uses planting to frame the space to human proportions well, and provides open space for a large catchment. In this respect the space works quite intensely, as all the best urban parks should, to make the best use of its land for its function of recreation and relief.

The use of a park at the centre of a neighbourhood to define a character is a useful tool for designers to employ, creating clear contrasts with areas where built form intensity defines centres. Although fronted by large, desirable homes, within one block are smaller houses and terraces on an attractive grid of streets laid out at the time that benefit from its proximity. The surrounding streets are quiet and pedestrian-friendly, with street trees and verges.

It has struck me that this park is a product of its time, when a park or recreational field was an object of civic pride and a gift to the and community in which the developer or organisation operated, for the long-term enhancement of the place. It was laid out for the long-term, and stewardship considered from the start. Instead of shunting it to the side, and using ‘green open space’ as a ‘buffer’ to the existing town or surroundings, a formal park was laid as the centrepiece of the new place, and as an asset and destination for the whole town. Above all, it was recognised that there was tremendous value, both human and financial, in the creation of such a place. Many pieces of research have tried to quantify the effects of great parks on financial values – for me the variety of values provided is obvious in Albert Park.