The Tyranny of the Temporary: Should We Be Worried About the Rise of Park Events?

By Dr Andrew Smith, Reader, School of Architecture and Cities, University of Westminster

In August 2018 Michael Palin wrote to his local paper about restricted access to Hampstead Heath: “This is an English Heritage property in trust for the public and it’s being closed off at the time of year when everybody wants to go there”. Like many parks and green spaces, this part of the heath near Kenwood House now hosts a series of events every summer. These provide entertainment and pleasure for many but, according to Palin and other critics, they undermine the publicness of the spaces.

Historic parks have always staged festivals and events, but recent increases in the scale and frequency of events have led to a number of high profile disputes. Palin’s son, Tom, former Chair of the Friends of Finsbury Park, has led the legal challenges over its over-exploitation as a venue for large-scale music festivals. This Victorian park in north London was awarded £3.384 million by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) in 2003 but the regularity with which events are staged means that the Chair of the Friends of Finsbury Park, Simon Hunt, now feels: “It can no longer be called a park."

Workers derig the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, North London
Dismantling temporary structures after the controversial Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, North London © Andrew Smith

Festivals and events bring in valuable income for park authorities trying to adjust to cuts in public funding. They can help to fulfil other objectives too - by making parks more visible and encouraging different types of people to visit. We often hear about the merits of ‘disrupting’ conventional business practices. Events can be used as positive ways to disrupt the identity, use and intransigence of historic parks. However, regular users are concerned about a more visceral form of disruption - the way events restrict access and interrupt the everyday enjoyment of green spaces.

This summer the issue of ‘event takeover’ reached a tipping point, particularly in London. There is high demand from music festival organisers for open spaces and authorities can earn six figure sums for the daily hire of large parks. The country’s oldest conservation body, the Open Spaces Society, has led opposition at the national level. It has called for a policy “to ensure that green spaces are not exploited for commercial events against the wishes of local people who want to enjoy the land for quiet, informal recreation”.

Festival fences placed directly against the front of a bench, making it unusable, viewed from outside the boundary.
Fences for the Lambeth Country Show installed in Brockwell Park, South London © Andrew Smith

The interests that defend park events tend to represent negative effects as time-limited, but there is evidence of longer lasting consequences. Large-scale events take several days to set up and dismantle and can damage turf and other vegetation. This interrupts access to green space for several months of the year. The introduction of winter events like Winterville on Clapham Common and Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park means this is becoming a year-round problem, rather than merely a seasonal one.

Long-term effects include examples where valuable heritage assets have been damaged by event projects. When Battersea Park staged Formula E motor races in 2015 and 2016, opponents argued that this historic site (awarded £7.5 million by the HLF in 2004) was permanently changed - not just to make it a suitable venue but to provide the foundations for future commercial incursions. In other parks, including Greenwich Park and Croxteth Country Park, built heritage has been damaged to allow access for the heavy goods vehicles that supply event infrastructures.

Section of a wall at Croxteth Country Park damaged to provide access for a CBBC event.
A wall at Croxteth Country Park, Liverpool, damaged to provide access for the CBBC Summer Social, August 2018 © Paul Todd

Expensive events can reaffirm the reputation of historic parks as ‘playgrounds for the rich’ dedicated to those willing and able to consume. They normalise the idea that parks can be fenced off for private use and provide precedents for future incursions. The new emphasis on events is also linked to changes in the ways our parks are managed and governed. New organisations are being established to manage parks as self-financing enterprises. A good example is Gunnersbury Park in West London (recently awarded £9.4 million of HLF funding) which is now run by a Community Interest Company. Tellingly, the first thing the new Company did was to hire out park space to the organisers of Lovebox Festival and Secret Cinema, which disrupted park access for all of July and August.

Damage to the surface of grounds at Gunnersbury Park.
Residual damage to Gunnersbury Park, West London, two months after Lovebox Festival © Andrew Smith

As parks are forced to seek alternative income streams, it seems inevitable that increased levels of commercial activity will change the ways our parks are perceived, used and managed. To protect public access it seems reasonable that authorities adhere to negotiated limits on the amount of space and time events can occupy. Rather than being driven solely by financial objectives, park authorities need to prioritise events that can also help to achieve wider social and environmental missions. There should be transparency about how much income is earned from events and how that money is spent. Adopting such measures might mean the Palins once again become more famous for complaints about dead parrots, rather than the part-privatisation of public parks.

Andrew Smith
Dr Andrew Smith, Reader, School of Architecture and Cities, University of Westminster

Key points from #ParksThinkTank

The ten points below summarise the conversations at the recent event #ParksThinkTank.

  1. Parks are required to serve multiple functions, and there is likely to be an intensification of competing demands and plurality. We need to be realistic about what parks can do. We expect too much from them and they are being asked to serve too many policy agendas.
  2. Parks policy has essentially become about defence – defending what we have, rather than pursuing a more ambitious, radical or imaginative agenda. History dominates this defensive narrative. But what is the alternative? What do people want that they can’t currently get from parks?
  3. Heritage is also the most effective ‘shield’ to defend parks. Breaking away from the past may expose parks to incursions. History and heritage are the reasons we still have parks and their historical significance is an effective defence against rampant real estate speculation.
  4. The idea of green infrastructure risks turning parks into instrumental landscapes that are only valued for the (measurable) functions they perform. There isn’t genuine commitment to sustainable principles so what is the purpose of the green infrastructure narrative?
  5. We need generous parks, not merely urban green spaces. Parks provide recreational opportunities that cannot be replicated by green chains, pocket/pop-up parks, or piecemeal green spaces. Scale is important, as is the capacity to accommodate different users.
  6. To move forward we need more recognition of failed initiatives. There is too much focus on best practice at the expense of better understanding of projects that have gone wrong.
  7. Commercialisation is often justified by the need for more funding for parks, but in the present era that parks are being used to subsidise other local authority services. Commercial initiatives (events) are too often adopted to make money from parks, not necessarily for parks.
  8. Discussion of parks tends to be dominated by the ‘work that parks do’ but we need to understand the ‘work that makes parks’. Parks work under austerity has been reduced to keeping parks clean and tidy, rather than genuine stewardship. Skilled horticultural work is disappearing.
  9. Everyone is now obsessed with managing the financial situation and, as a result, there is a conspicuous lack of oversight, strategy or leadership. The sector has been lost and the only hope is to give parks more prominence within government and to provide proper public funding.
  10. There seems little point designing micro-funding solutions and precarious new governance models when the key problem is so obvious and so fundamental. In this context, the answer is more funding from national taxation and/or more scope for local authorities to raise taxes.

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