Time to Celebrate and Restore London’s ‘Other’ Rivers

Paul de Zylva, Chair of the Quaggy Waterways Action Group (QWAG), tells the story of London’s supposedly ‘lost’ rivers, and how recovering them plays a key role in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss.

Everyone knows London’s river – Old Father Thames – but can you name some of London’s ‘other’ rivers? The Fleet, perhaps, or the Westbourne?

Nowadays, you’d be hard pressed to see the Fleet as it flows from Hampstead Heath beneath Camden, Kings Cross, and Clerkenwell, to dissect Ludgate Hill and Fleet Street before emptying into the Thames near Blackfriars Bridge. The Westbourne is also largely hidden as it also heads from Hampstead, this time via Kilburn – another watery name – Hyde Park and Sloane Square (in a metal tube above the Underground tracks and platforms) before reaching the Thames near Chelsea Bridge.

When in central London, I imagine walking above the Cock and Pye Ditch as I head from Seven Dials down St Martin’s Lane to St Martin’s-in-the-Fields. The ditch runs beneath them, before entering the Thames near the blacking factory which gave a young Charles Dickens much to write about in later life.

Other rivers also give their names to places. Brent and Wandsworth boroughs gain their names from the Brent and Wandle rivers respectively.

London’s many ‘other’ rivers and waterways are often referred to as being ‘lost’, but they are still there beneath the surface, pumping like veins and waiting for sense to prevail.

A tale of two rivers

25 ‘other’ rivers flow directly into the Thames, from the Beam, Effra, and Lee/ Lea to the Longford, Neckinger, and the short Walbrook in the Square Mile. Many more rivers are tributaries – feeding these and other main rivers rather than flowing directly into the Thames themselves.

In deepest Bromley, the Ravensbourne rises from Ceasar’s Wells at Keston Ponds. It flows behind Bromley High Street, between Queens Mead Park and Martins Hill, before heading down to Catford where it is joined by the River Pool coming from Sydenham. Then, it’s through the restored Ladywell Fields to central Lewisham where the Ravensbourne meets the River Quaggy.

Long, straight stretches of the Quaggy wait to be re-naturalised (Photo: QWAG)

The Quaggy also rises in leafy Bromley – at Locksbottom, not far from the Ravensbourne’s source. It runs through Petts Wood and Sundridge Park, before entering Lewisham at Chinbrook Meadows in Grove Park. It crosses into its third London borough as it enters Sutcliffe Park in Greenwich, where a hugely successful river restoration has revived the park, brought back wildlife, and kept everyone much safer from flood risk.

Lewisham’s official borough crest shows the confluence of the Quaggy and the Ravensbourne, but for years the borough’s leaders, including one notable MP, cast disdain on the river. When Christopher Chataway was Conservative MP for Lewisham North between 1957 and 1966, he condemned the Quaggy as “a curse and an eyesore”. Formerly an Olympic athlete, Chataway was clearly no front-runner when it came to knowing how treating rivers well makes them more friend than foe.

Back into Lewisham at Lee Green, the river is largely confined by the A20 and residential roads, but it has helped give life to treasured green spaces at Manor House Gardens and Manor Park. Finally, in central Lewisham, it vanishes beneath the landmark Clock Tower and Europe’s largest police station before being seen, albeit in a concrete channel, in front of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s St Stephen’s Church.

The last stretch of the combined rivers follows the route of the Docklands Light Railway from Lewisham, through the award-winning Brookmill Park to Deptford Creek. Here Henry VIII built his Navy and Peter the Great of Russia studied shipbuilding while staying at Sir John Evelyn’s Sayes Court (now Sayes Court Park). Today you can enjoy low-tide walks in the Creek itself, thanks to the fantastic Creekside Educational Trust.

What rivers tell us about our city

London’s many rivers – visible or ‘lost’ – show us so much more about where we live. They can, for example:

  • show how London was formed across mind-bending geological time – some of the rocks in the River Quaggy are over 50 million years old;
  • reveal more recent history, such as how the Vikings rowed up the rivers to settle (at Ladywell) and how early mixes of concrete were trialled for river walls in Napoleonic times (at Manor Park);
  • help us see our city in ways other than via the usual routes we take (roads, trains and buses) or the maps we use (A to Z or Google);
  • allow us to appreciate wildlife other than squirrels in the local park kingfishers, bats, damselflies and fish.

Turning our back on our rivers

Mills on the Ravensbourne once made glass, paper, and silk, hence the names of some streets and venues in downtown Lewisham, but the arrival of the railways and expansion of housing for workers saw London turn its back on many of its rivers, and start to view them as a problem.

Building work continued right up to the riverbanks, and – surprise, surprise these new homes and properties flooded. Flooding is a natural process, and rivers that flow through floodplains – such as that on which London is built – will flood. But engineers and builders in the late 19th and 20th centuries thought they knew better. Major public works were ordered to straighten, canalise and often cover over rivers. The view was that these harsh methods were the only ways to protect life, limb and livelihoods.

Section of the Quaggy in Brookmill Park, Lewisham (Photo: Candy Blackham)

The utter folly of this was seen once the rivers could no longer be seen down in their ‘concrete coffins’, as members of the river restoration community often call the deep encasings in which rivers were put – devoid of light, and of little or no value to nature.

River restoration works

The decades-long blame game has taken a long time to change – but change it we have.

The River Quaggy was one of the UK’s most abused and heavily-engineered rivers. It’s still stuck in masses of concrete for much of its length, but local volunteers have shown how restoring the river, instead of continuing to mistreat it, cuts flood risk, brings back and supports nature, and complements local parks and spaces, improving them for recreation, learning and more.

Rivers also link up places that otherwise have little to do with each other – rather like bus, tube or rail lines, but in a more natural and cultural sense. The Quaggy, for example, is the only thing that people living in Orpington and Petts Wood have in common with people living downstream in Hither Green, Lee Green and Deptford.

Rivers cross borough boundaries, and making them better requires local councils to cooperate. That is a challenge, but is made easier by the existence of Catchment Partnerships which bring together community groups, councils and others across an entire catchment instead of within borough boundaries.

The Ravensbourne Catchment, for example, covers the whole of the boroughs of Bromley, Greenwich and Lewisham, and part of Croydon. Councils can learn how to work across wider landscapes by cooperating from source to sea on river restoration, pollution control, de-paving and other measures to cut flood risk, capture and store free rainfall, and boost the resilience of our streets and neighbourhoods to excess heat, which is increasingly a threat to health.

Thanks to patient, community-led action, south-east London is now a beacon of successful urban river restoration with major restorations in Chinbrook Meadows, Sutcliffe Park, and Ladywell Fields, and many smaller-scale improvements at points in between.

Ladywell Fields, Lewisham (Photo: Candy Blackham)

The world even comes to see. We have given tours to people from as far afield as Northern Ireland and Hong Kong to see how it’s done and how it helps cut flood risk, boost wildlife, and improve places for people.

Restoration across London

Across London, communities are acting to reverse decades of damage to rivers, waterways and wetlands:

  • In south-east London, Bexley’s Thames Road Wetland is hemmed in by roads but is now accessible, and offers a rare sanctuary for many important wild species.
  • In the south west, the Hogsmill is the focus of efforts to bring beavers back, while in the north beavers have already returned to restored rivers and wetlands in Enfield and now also in Ealing.
  • Threatened eels are returning, as rivers are removed from concrete or as physical barriers to their movement up rivers are knocked-out; even half-inch high steps built into concrete river bases are hard for eels to get over.
  • In the west, brilliant work is being done by the River Crane Partnership.
  • In the east, the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics saw decades of neglect left behind as the river Lee-Lea was opened up. Efforts are underway to improve other maligned rivers such as the Roding in Barking.
  • Across London, river action complements the well-established good work by Friends of parks and gardens groups, and others.
Children exploring wildlife in the restored Qwaggy (Photo: QWAG)

When you look at your area, or look at a map of London, remember that Old Father Thames is fed by many more humble rivers that tell us more about London – and make it work better – than we might think.

For more information about QWAG’s projects and membership, visit www.qwag.org.uk

Aske Gardens Renamed

LPG Research Volunteer Barbara Deason describes the history of the recently renamed Joe White Gardens, Hackney.

A second public green space in the London Borough of Hackney is being renamed following a proposal from the Hackney Naming Hub. The Hub was launched two years ago as part of Hackney Council’s anti-racism programme and the renaming is part of a wider review into the names of local landmarks, streets, buildings and public spaces in Hackney, to ensure they reflect the borough’s diverse history. Readers may recall that Cassland Road Gardens was renamed Kit Crowley Gardens in November 2021.

The second garden to be renamed was originally known as Aske’s Hospital, and then, until the renaming, as Aske Gardens. Aske’s Hospital, one of the earliest and grandest almshouses to be built in Shoreditch, took its name from its benefactor Robert Aske (1619 -1689), who also bequeathed money for Haberdasher Aske’s School. Aske’s will of January 1689 left £20,000 to the Haberdashers’ Company for the establishment of almshouses for “20 poor single freemen and a school for 20 sons of freemen”, and in 1690 a charity was set up by Act of Parliament to carry out the terms of the will, and a site was obtained. The original almshouses were designed by Robert Hooke in 1692 and the building was completed by 1695. This building fell into disrepair, being pulled down in 1822 and rebuilt in 1825-27 by David Riddel Roper with increased educational provision.

By 1882, the almshouses part of the building had been demolished, school buildings had been enlarged and it was in use as an educational establishment for 300 girls and 300 boys, subsequently becoming the LCC-run Shoreditch Technical Institute. At this point the open space in front was designated as public open space. The Institute was later renamed City and East London College.

However, Robert Aske was an investor in the Royal African Company, and as well as using some of his money to establish the almshouses and educational buildings was also an active participant in the slave trade. Between 1672 and 1731 he is known to have transported 187,697 enslaved people on company-owned ships to English colonies in the Americas. 20% of these enslaved people died on the journey.

Robert Aske’s name will now be replaced by that of Joe White (1962 – 2002), an inspirational Hackney-raised sportsman. White forged a successful career as a professional basketball player representing Team GB, before becoming one of the most successful youth coaches in UK basketball history, winning 14 national schools titles and 18 national club titles.

Joe White also developed some of the country’s best players, two of whom went on to represent Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics, and coached many more who achieved professional careers in sport, as well as helping change the lives of hundreds.

The LPG Research Group would welcome anyone interested in contributing new research – find out more at bit.ly/lpgvols

London’s Commons, Heaths and Greens

LPG Research Volunteer Joan Pateman looks into the history, management and conservation of London’s oldest neighbourhood green spaces.

The LPG Inventory lists commons, heaths and greens among its approximately 2,600 entries. They range from Monken Hadley Common, Barnet in the north to Keston Common, Bromley in the south. Many are well known, such as Hampstead Heath and Wandsworth and Clapham Commons.

Both commons and greens have defined meanings and both have Acts of Parliament governing them. Commons are lands to which rights of common – such as grazing, gathering of fuel and digging gravel – apply or used to apply. Greens originated with the obligatory allotment of land for exercise and recreation in Enclosure Acts; after 1845, if an Enclosure Act did not include a green, the reason hac to be justified in a report to Parliament. Under the Commons Registration Act 1995, augmented by the Commons Act 2006, all commons and village or town greens have to be registered by the local commons registration authority, which in London is the local borough council.

In 2005, English Heritage (now Historic England) commissioned David Lambert and Sally Williams of the Parks Agency to investigate and write a report on the 111 commons, heaths and greens then listed in Greater London. This report remained a valuable point of reference, and in 2014 English Heritage made it available to the public David Lambert, one of the founders of the Parks Agency, is a notable researcher and expert on the conservation of historic parks and gardens. Sally Williams is Keeper of the Inventory at LPG, and data held in the Inventory provided the starting point for their research.

The report was commissioned to study and identify historic environment conservation issues, and priorities for future study and funding. It included a review of existing information, a statistical overview, a sample survey, site visits to 25 sites and case studies of a further five sites. In its survey, the report looked for observable changes in the 25 sites in 2005 compared to documentary sources and late 19th and early 20th century maps.

Not surprisingly, given the lack of grazing animals, 44% of sites had increased growth of trees and scrub. A further 87% had formal tree planting schemes. Many commons and greens had lost margins to highway development and had space allocated for car parks. There were leisure developments and formal sports provision and, in many cases, new surfaced paths and unsympathetic municipal furniture and lighting.

Postcard of Slade Valley, Plumstead (no date), from the LPG Inventory under Plumstead Common.
(Courtesy of Greenwich Local Studies and Archives Centre.)
Modern Plumstead Common. Most of the Common is flat recreational ground, but near the Slade is a wilder valley part.
(Photo: David Anstiss, 2011; CC-BY-SA/2.0)

The authors made a number of recommendations which are still relevant today. They emphasised the importance of understanding the historical significance of a site to enable appropriate management plans to be developed. Clear statements of significance and of value should be established to understand the impact of any proposed developments. There was, and still is, the need to determine whether a site was to be a public park or a common, and to try to get consensus in the community.

It was noted that while the historical significance of a green space might not always be fully appreciated, the ecological value often was. Since 2005, there have been more advances in managing sites for biodiversity and ecological conservation. These improvements are often effected by local volunteers working in collaboration with the site management. To cite a few examples:

  • a voluntary conservation group in Hounslow Heath was set up five years ago to clear and maintain their nature reserve on a weekly basis;
  • the Friends of Plumstead Common’s environment group rescued and restored Workhouse Wood on the demolished St Nicholas Hospital site, one of the areas listed in the report for ecological enhancement;
  • the Wandsworth Common Friends Group, set up in 2018, hold sessions to help maintain and encourage biodiversity on the Common.

Eighteen years on from the publication of the report, there is a need for more up-to-date research to be carried out. For example, the report commented that – although it listed observable changes at the time – no assessment was made as to whether these changes were for the good. There has been little assessment of subsequent changes.

The LPG Research Group would welcome anyone interested in contributing new research – find out more at londongardenstrust.org/support/vols/become-a-volunteer. London’s commons, heaths and greens incorporate a very wide variety of different open spaces and are being asked to fulfil a range of public needs. As such, they present a complex management challenge. It is vital to understand their rich social history, and the development of the character and appearance of the landscape over time.

The Late Queen’s Connection with London’s South Bank

Research Focus

In a special edition of Research Focus marking the passing of Queen Elizabeth II in September, LPG Research Group volunteer Fran Martin reminisces about the Queen’s connection with London’s South Bank.

The queue for the Queen’s lying-in-state at Westminster Hall snaked along the aptly named Queen’s Walk, the promenade along the southern bank of the Thames which runs from Lambeth Bridge to Tower Bridge. The walk forms part of the Jubilee Walkway, created to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, and runs past monuments marking her numerous jubilee celebrations: the Jubilee Gardens, created to mark the Silver Jubilee and transformed in 2012 for the Diamond Jubilee; and the Golden Jubilee Bridges either side of the Hungerford Railway Bridge. Just a few months before, I had eagerly photographed a passing Platinum Jubilee bus! The Golden Jubilee Bridges – opened by the Queen’s cousin, Princess Alexandra, in 2003 – provide a lovely walk between the south and north banks, offering some of the most stunning views of the Thames in London.

The Queen’s Queue along the South Bank
© Bex Walton (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Images of Queen Elizabeth II became a familiar sight on the streets of London after her passing, as we paid our respects with signs in shop windows, floral tributes, and displays at venues across the capital. On the South Bank, memories of the Queen were everywhere.

The Southbank Centre itself – the largest arts centre in the UK and one of the nation’s top visitor attractions – is inextricably connected with the Queen. The Royal Festival Hall was opened in 1951 by her father, King George VI, as part of the Festival of Britain, which was intended as a tonic after the war years and a symbol of hope for the future. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh attended the first concert in the Hall on 3 May 1951 and were frequent visitors in the years that followed. The Queen was a fan of jazz and her first solo engagement at the Royal Festival Hall was a jazz concert on 14 July 1973. The Queen Elizabeth Hall was built with the smaller Purcell Room and opened by the Queen in 1967, with a concert conducted by Benjamin Britten. She also opened the Hayward Gallery – a landmark of Brutalist architecture – in 1968.

Parks at the Heart of The Queen’s Lying-In-State

Green spaces such as Green Park and St James’s Park were a focal point for floral tributes following the death of the Queen, but some of London’s most famous parks became logistical hubs too for those queuing to pay their respects at Westminster Hall.

  • Southwark Park – the queue had its ‘entrance’ here, with wristbands distributed to those joining
  • Archbishop’s Park – home to staff wellbeing tents and first aid stations
  • Victoria Tower Gardens – the end of the queue, with zigzag lines snaking through to the Hall entrance

All along the Queen’s Walk, the inescapable sight of the London Eye looms overhead, beautifully lit up at night since its opening as part of the Millennium celebrations in 2000. The twinkling lights complement the gentle buzz of passers-by, both locals and tourists, soaking up the autumn glow. Who doesn’t feel a hint of dismay as the clocks go back and the darker evenings beckon? Yet the splendour of the South Bank at night reminds us of the beauty of the changing seasons. This area of London, which has witnessed scenes of such profound sadness just weeks ago, also shows us the comfort of history and legacy. Just as the tenacity of those waiting in the Queen’s Queue inspired us, the rich history and culture of this area of London can offer us a glimmer of comfort in the wintry nights ahead.

Landscapes Created by Women Gardeners

Margaret King, Maria Precedo and Jo Roll, from the LGT’s Research Group, select snapshots from five centuries of London landscapes created by women gardeners, illustrators and landscape architects

Entrance to Commonwealth Institute site from Kensington High Street with Sylvia Crowe flagpoles, August 2002 (Photo: Sally Williams)

1654 Lady Brooke’s garden in Hackney is deemed to be ‘one of the neatest and most celebrated in England’ by John Evelyn, and Samuel Pepys later praises its orange trees, exotic plants and labyrinths.
1699 Towards the end of the century, Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort, starts to create one of the finest stocked gardens in London at Beaufort House in Chelsea. She receives seeds from all over the world, cultivates, identifies and catalogues more than a thousand rare and exotic plants, and compiles an important herbarium now housed at the Natural History Museum. The estate is portrayed in a 1699 engraving by Kip.
1739 Taking rooms in Swan Walk next to the Apothecaries’ Garden (now known as Chelsea Physic Garden), Elizabeth Blackwell draws, engraves and hand-colours five hundred medicinal plants. The illustrations are published in A Curious Herbal, raising enough money to pay for her husband’s release from a debtors’ prison.

The Voysey Garden in North Kensington
Emslie Horniman Pleasance Gardens
(Photo: Justina Burnett)

1840 Whilst living in Bayswater, Jane Loudon argues that women can dig, prune and design flower gardens just as well as men, in a series of illustrated books with titles such as Gardening for Ladies. A Blue Plaque in Porchester Terrace commemorates Jane and her husband John Claudius Loudon for their horticultural work, which ‘gave new beauty to London Squares’. The Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden is dedicated to Jane’s friend Louisa Lawrence, whose garden in Drayton Green, Ealing, is declared by John to be ‘unquestionably the most remarkable of its size in the neighbourhood of London on account of the great variety and beauty which has been created’. Lawrence wins numerous medals for her garden and is one of the first women members of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).
1878 Having won admission to the men-only Crystal Palace School of Landscape Gardening and Practical Horticulture, Fanny Rollo Wilkinson becomes the first female landscape gardener and lays out over seventy-five public gardens in London, including Meath Gardens in Bethnal Green and Myatt’s Fields in Camberwell for the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA).
1896 Kew Gardens becomes Britain’s first national garden to appoint women gardeners – Annie Gulvin and Alice Hutchins. Both are graduates from Swanley Horticultural College, the first college to offer science-based horticultural studies to women,
heralding ‘a triumph of brains over brute’ by opening up a male-dominated trade to women.

Myatt’s Fields Park, Café
(Photo: Colin Wing)

1905 Dr Lilian Clarke becomes one of the first women Fellows of the Linnean Society. Clarke created the Botany Gardens at James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich, which continue to be used by the school today for garden-based learning.
1914 The Voysey Garden in North Kensington opens, with an explosion of colour and form from more than a hundred flowering plants and shrubs in a central bed designed by Madeline Agar. Agar spends almost 25 years greening London’s streets, churchyards and garden squares for the MPGA. She also creates and teaches a Landscape Architecture course, where one of her pupils is Brenda Colvin; Colvin later works as Agar’s site assistant on the World War I memorial garden on Wimbledon Common, planting a grove of fifty oak trees in concentric rings around an austere stone cross.
1929 Colvin co-founds the Institute of Landscape Architects and later becomes its first woman President, closely followed by Sylvia Crowe. Agar, Colvin and Crowe are all celebrated as much for their writings on garden design as for their work.
1930 Selfridges’ roof garden opens in Oxford Street with a pergola, pools, lawn and sculptures designed by Marjorie Allen.
1962 Sylvia Crowe develops a landscaped entrance to the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington featuring a ‘modernist’ use of concrete, a water feature with a channel, fountains and jets crossed by a bridge, and a secluded shaded garden of lawns and shrubs with an avenue of limes. Along with the Selfridges roof garden, this was a ‘must-see’ sight in London; both are now lost.
1985 Arabella Lennox-Boyd designs
a roof garden at No 1 Poultry with far-reaching City views. She reinstates a Gertrude Jekyll flower border in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, described in her book Private Gardens of London, and later landscapes the space around the Serpentine North Gallery in Kensington Gardens with grasses threaded through a wave of tiered buxus and tumbling herbaceous plants at the rear.
2012 The gardens at the Olympic Park in Stratford open with planting
co-designed by Sarah Price, celebrating different habitats from across the world that have been a major source of plants for gardeners in Britain.

With thanks to the LGT research volunteers for their hard work and original research.

Further Reading:

  • Collens and Powell eds., Sylvia Crowe, Landscape Design Trust Monographs No 2 (1999)
  • E Crawford, Fanny Wilkinson: London’s Landscape Gardener The London Gardener Volume 23 (2019)
  • S Dumpelmann and J Beardsley eds., Women, Modernity and Landscape Architecture (Routledge 2015)
  • S Edwards, Interview with Dame Sylvia Crowe, Landscape Architecture Magazine vol 76 No2 (1986)
  • K Fitzsimon, Nine decades, nine inspiring women in landscape architecture, Landscape Journal Issue 3 (2019)
  • C Norwood, Gardening Women: their stories from 1600 to the present (Virago 2010)
  • A Meredith, Horticultural Education in England, 1900-1940: Middle-Class Women and Private Gardening Schools, Garden History Journal 31, 1 (2003)
  • L Newman, Madeline Agar (18741967): from lady gardener to landscape architect, Garden History Journal 48, 2 (2020)
  • M Precedo, Helen Colt, London Landscapes (Summer 2021)
  • J Roll, Searching for Sylvia in London: Sylvia Crowe DBE (1907-1997), garden designer and landscape architect, The London Gardener 25 (2021)
  • T Way, Virgins, Weeders and Queens (Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2006)

What Makes a Good Park?

Chief Executive of Parks for London Tony Leach explains the impact of the Good
Parks for London report on improving green space provision across the capital.

Parks for London published the first Good Parks for London (GPfL) report in 2017 to improve the quality of parks and green spaces throughout London and to promote the positive work and best practices being carried out by local authorities and land managers across the capital. Since then, GPfL has become Parks for London’s flagship publication. In its six years, the report has grown more robust in its collection and presentation of data and has become increasingly recognised by policymakers and practitioners across London.

Although numerous organisations with an interest in London’s parks and green spaces exist, they often are location or issue specific, with few taking a holistic or London-wide perspective. Furthermore, no standards for comparing Council parks services across London exist. While Keep Britain Tidy’s Green Flag Awards – a scheme in which many London boroughs participate – provides some benchmarking for green space quality, Green Flag applies to individual spaces and does not look strategically across a borough or organisation. GPfL helps fill this gap.

What is a park?
For the purposes of GPfL benchmarking we use the following definition of parks: parks include all publicly accessible green spaces that are owned (or leased) and managed by a Local Authority (LA), whether in-house or out-sourced. This includes churchyards and cemeteries within Greater London but excludes: housing land; allotments; green spaces owned and managed by The Royal Parks, City of London, Lee Valley Regional Park or other landowners; and green spaces owned by the LA but managed entirely by third parties such as independent park trusts, the London Wildlife Trust, the Conservation Volunteers (TCV) and others.

How does Good Parks for London work?
GPfL assesses participating London boroughs’ parks services each year, from April to March, against the ten criteria summarised in the table on this page. This enables comparison between boroughs and gives recognition to the work and progress happening across London’s parks, helping improve performance and standards, and making practices more visible and open to scrutiny.

The limited definition described above means that only 32 boroughs are included in the data, because benchmarking with other landowners would be like comparing apples with pears. To compensate for this, the report includes case studies from other landowners and managers to give them an opportunity to share good practice and raise their profile.

Part one of the report evaluates participating boroughs against the ten criteria. The results are presented through maps and a summary benchmarking table, which indicates how boroughs are performing, along with short articles under each criterion from boroughs that are performing well or showing innovative work in that area.

Fiona Garnett Crumley’s Scented Garden – Wandsworth Park – illustrates
community involvement (Photo: Friends of Wandsworth Park)

Part two of the report focuses on the exemplary work done in London’s parks, focusing on a different theme each year:
2018 – Improving London’s parks for all
2019 – Parks and health
2020 – Parks and the pandemic
2021 – Parks and climate change
2022 – Keeping park clean

Part three of the report was added in 2022 to include a broader range of case studies from land managers and organisations with an interest in managing London’s parks.

Since GPfL’s inception, we have refined the information needed to evidence the ten criteria. Council Officers have become more familiar with the data they need to submit and are increasingly adept at collecting and reporting this information. As such, the robustness of GPfL’s evidence base continues to improve. Since 2021 we have provided borough feedback reports, which highlight key strengths and recommendations for improvement. Changes in legislation, such as the Government’s Environmental Improvement Plan, mean that criteria will continue to be modified from time to time.

Thrive Main Garden, Battersea Park – illustrates health and wellbeing
(Photo: Colin Wing)

What is the impact of the report?
Parks for London wanted to assess whether GPfL is meeting its objectives, namely: improving the overall quality of green spaces across London; strengthening Council parks services; protecting and increasing green space budgets; and raising awareness among policymakers and decision makers of the importance of well-managed and well-resourced parks. Parks for London also wanted to identify opportunities to improve the report’s usefulness for Heads of Service and other Council staff, as well as policymakers and Portfolio Holders, as this can lead to GPfL having greater impact.

As a result, in 2020 Parks for London commissioned Dr Meredith Whitten to evaluate the impact of the GPfL report on policy and practice, and boroughs’ approach to green space delivery and management. Data was collected via a survey across all boroughs, followed by in-depth interviews in selected boroughs. Respondents included Heads of Service, Portfolio Holders and other Council officers with a responsibility related to green space.

The research found that 80% of respondents have a positive impression of GPfL, and that GPfL has had an impact on improving green space quality and developing stronger parks services within local authorities. This impact tends to be subtle, with the report incentivising good practice rather than overtly necessitating change. By laying out broad criteria for high-quality parks and identifying the factors that constitute a well-run parks service, GPfL nudges boroughs to make changes and reinforces good practices. The report also focuses attention on activities beyond the frontline, but which are fundamental to providing quality green space and strong, stable Council parks services.

Dr Whitten’s research identified sever areas where changes to GPfL could potentially lead to greater impact, such as how the annual report’s results are communicated to various audiences, including policymakers and budget-setters. Benchmarking across London’s boroughs has limitations, regardless of the issue being benchmarked, as the city’s 33 local governments have distinctive cultures, priorities and politics. Green space across the boroughs differs as well, including in area, average size and use. Local authorities also have different organisational structures, which affect where a parks service sits.

Collectively, however, green spaces across the boroughs contribute to the city’s overall greenness, the health and wellbeing of Londoners, the capital’s ability to respond to and adapt to climate change, and London’s role as a global leader in urban green space issues, such as becoming the world’s first National Park City. The GPfL report provides a well-received means for continuing to improve green space standards across the capital.

Winsford Gardens, Bromley
(Photo: Duncan Catterall)


Evaluates borough-wide surveys, taking into account follow-up action plans based on residents’ feedback.

Recognises attainment of Green Flag Awards, participation in other award schemes like London in Bloom, and use of the Parks for London Green Space Quality Manual.

Assesses support for organisations such as Parks for London and partnerships with voluntary sector organisations and local environmental groups. Rewards collaborative land management and service provision arrangements.

Appraises events (particularly
community events) held in green spaces, income returned to the park service, and quality of event management, sustainability and accessibility.

Assesses use of parks for social
prescription referrals, provision of outdoor gyms and exercise programmes, and availability of community food growing areas, noting initiatives to encourage participation, access and inclusion.

Evaluates biodiversity action plans, biodiversity strategies or local nature recovery plans, as well as biodiversity outreach schemes.

Notes incidence of Community Green Flag Awards, involvement with and support for Friends and Residents groups, and volunteer engagement.

Evaluates provision of training, development and learning
opportunities, equality, diversity and inclusion policies, and overall number of apprentices and trainees.

Assesses fleet and equipment sustainability and efficiency, recycling of parks litter and green waste, weed management and climate resilience plans.

Notes recent completion of a parks service scrutiny review, adoption of a green infratruture space strategy with associated investment plan, and use of a costed asset management plan.

More about Parks for London: parksforlondon.org.uk/about/parks-for-Iondon
Good Parks for London reports: parksforlondon.org.uk/resource/good-parks-for-Iondon

Fiona’s Scented Garden

Spotting A Great Park in the Rough

Pat Gross, Chair of the Friends of Wandsworth Park, recalls the creation
of Fiona’s Scented Garden, a much-loved community green space

About eight years ago, the Friends of Wandsworth Park started querying a locked-off but coveted area of riverside park land. Why could no one have access? Why did it sit there empty, day after day?

When the new development that abutted the space was built in the 1980s, this pocket of land was retained by the Council with a hope to extend the riverside walk. It was land designated as part of the park.

Our queries about the terrace continued to fall on deaf ears. As we later discovered, it had allegedly been closed following claims of anti-social behaviour on the site by the neighbours, but no one from the Council was prepared to state that outright What didn’t make sense was the fact that the anti-social behaviour continued in the unlocked side of the park, as well.

Then, after more than three years of being locked, a planning application was submitted by the neighbours for “change of use”. The neighbours wanted to obtain a very long lease of the land and extend their gardens to the river.

Luckily a very vocal and angry community took up the fight, alongside the Friends of Wandsworth Park. The Friends investigated the available options, and we immediately applied for Asset of Community Value (ACV) status and the right to manage the space, as we had been requesting for years. We were now well-aware that the Council had long been in communication with the neighbours, almost agreeing to grant the long lease without seeking the proper permissions; this evidence only strengthened our case.

We needed 25 signatures from the community to back our application. The
request was sent to our members and the community, and within minutes we received over 50 signatures. As a result, we were granted the ACV status; this was significant in the planning application process as it prevented the Council from simply granting the “change of use” status, as it was now restricted. The Friends were also given a greater say in the site’s future.

The planning application was denied – a huge moment of relief for the Friends – and we commenced negotiations with the Council for how we would manage the site. However, on the day before their deadline, the neighbours challenged the decision and chose to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate. The Friends and the community were furious; we now approached Wandsworth Planning and insisted they join forces with us to fight the plan together. Our entire objection process had to be repeated, but this time the ACV status put us in a strong position. With the stellar support of the community, and in collaboration with the Council, we submitted our respective objections.

(Photo: Friends of Wandsworth Park)

The few months’ wait for the decision was a nail-biting time. We knew that if we lost this appeal, there would be no other place to go; the government’s decision was final. At last the decision came, and their application was again denied.

The few months’ wait for the decision was a nail-biting time. We knew that if we lost this appeal, there would be no other place to go; the government’s decision was final. At last the decision came, and their application was again denied.

“This was a very exciting and celebratory time, and our official opening was an extraordinary opportunity to share it with the community.”

After nearly a year of seriously hard work, the Friends were granted the right to manage the space. Fiona Garnett Crumley, a member of our committee and a very well-known and respected horticulturist, suggested it be turned into a scented garden. With the relevant approval and support she commences the implementation of her plans, and with the help of many volunteers we had the space cleared, improved and replanted.

This was a very exciting and celebratory time, and our official opening was an extraordinary opportunity to share it with the community. The space has proved to be the most popular area of the park.

Unfortunately, a few years later, Fiona lost her battle with cancer, and the Friends were devastated. We wanted to show our extraordinary gratitude for her expertise and commitment to Wandsworth Park, so – with full Council backing – we have renamed the space Fiona’s Scented Garden. It’s a magical area, far from noise, sports and dogs, and is used every day by a huge mix of people, old and young alike. We continue to garden and care for the space. It is opened and closed daily by volunteers, and we have even installed a telescope!

If you’re ever in the area, please do make the time to stop by. You will be transported to an area where you can truly relax, appreciate the planting, engage in some mindfulness as you watch the Thames tides flow past before your eyes, and enjoy the local wildlife entertaining you.

The Contribution of Migration to London’s Parks and Gardens

Research volunteer Barbara Deason unveils one of LPG’s major research themes for 2023-24

We tend to talk about migration primarily in terms of the past 100 years or so, but migrants have of course been coming to this country for many hundreds of years. Like those who were born in the UK, they have contributed to our knowledge of horticulture, gardening practices and design since the earliest times.

The Anchor, The Drum, The Ship’ (2022 – ongoing), by Harun Morrison and Antonia Couling – commemorating the slave trade in Gladstone Park
(c) Caleb Morrison

However, we know little about who these migrants were or what influence they have had over the ways in which London’s many parks and gardens have developed.

LPG volunteers are hoping to add to knowledge in this area by researching the lives of gardeners, landscape designers, horticulturalists, and their gardens, working within a number of key themes. These may include:

• specific migrant groups such as Huguenots, those associated with the Windrush, or more recent migrations from Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere;
• those who have influenced the development of specific spaces, such as Jewish cemeteries, mosque gardens, or community gardens;
• migrants or migrant communities who are celebrated in the names participating in of green spaces, or by statues or memorials;
• the plants and gardening practices migrants have introduced to the UK.

If you are interested in this research theme, or would like to know more, email LPG Research Co-ordinator Richard Capewell at research@londongardenstrust.org

The City that Sold the Sun

As the Garden Museum launches a campaign to increase the right to sunlight in public gardens and open spaces, LPG Director Helen Monger explains the importance of natural light, and efforts being made to defend it.

In June 2021, a development application for 8 Albert Embankment, adjacent to the Garden Museum, was turned down at the planning inquiry. The proposed 26-storey luxury flats would have overshadowed Old Paradise Gardens, one of many parks listed on the London Parks & Gardens Inventory. This historic little public park once formed part of the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, in which the Garden Museum is housed today, and was one of the first parish spaces to be converted into a park under the Metropolitan Open Spaces Act of 1881.

The Garden Museum had objected to the application on the basis that the high-rise flats would have plunged the park into 22 hours of shadow, for half the year; but although the application itself was rejected, the Museum’s reasons for objecting were ignored, along with many others. The inquiry found that the proposals were ‘compliant with current guidelines which require two hours of sunshine per day as measured on 21March’. Staff and researchers at the Garden Museum were shocked by the revelation that standards for amenity space were so poor. On 21 March 2022, they launched a campaign to address this issue in planning policy, supported by the LPG.

Why does natural light matter?

Guidance set by the British Research Establishment Trust (BRE) states that, on the Spring Equinox, sunlight must fall on a public garden for a minimum of two hours on at least half of the amenity area. The original intention of this guidance may have been well-meant, but the ‘two-hour rule’ has become a guide for planners across the UK who seek to deliver no more than this basic minimum.

The Garden Museum’s publication, The City that Sold the Sun, articulates the importance of access to quality green spaces with natural light. Professor Sir Sam Everington, a GP in Tower Hamlets, states that half of his patients are deficient in vitamin D, which is produced by the human body as a response to sun exposure. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to a loss of bone density, and at the extreme end of the scale this can lead to rickets and cause bone deformities in children. Tower Hamlets is an area of high deprivation, and is one of the most densely populated areas of the UK; the health impacts of lack of sunlight fall more harshly on already deprived communities.

As well as human concerns, there are real issues with lack of daylight for horticulture and nature more widely. Growers need more than six hours of sunlight per day to grow vegetables, and shaded gardens can support a less diverse range of plants. Lack of sunlight also influences temperature, and therefore insect activity; many major pollinators require a certain temperature before they can become active.

Tall buildings not only shade parks from daylight, but create issues of light pollution at night too. Government guidance on light pollution states that “artificial light provides valuable benefits to society, including through extending opportunities for sport and recreation”, but that it can also “be a source of annoyance to people, harmful to wildlife and undermine enjoyment of the countryside or the night sky” (1).

Canary Wharf Estate Westferry Circus Gardens (Sally Williams, March 2017)

One rule for us and another for them?

High-rise development brings both lack of sunlight during daytime hours and light pollution at night, yet the current thrust of UK development policy is to deliver a denser urban environment. This naturally leads to proposals aiming to build upwards, but the placement of multi-storey buildings is restricted by efforts to conserve landmark views across the capital. Since 1937, the City of London Corporation has operated a policy known as the ‘St Paul’s Heights’ to protect a number of famous views of the Cathedral. More recently, the London View Management Framework has defined protected views across London’s cityscape; indeed it was because of the view from Primrose Hill that the planning inquiry turned down proposals for 8 Albert Embankment.

Tall buildings not only
shade parks from daylight,
but create issues of light
pollution at night too

Local Authorities, however, must reach stringent targets set by central government and provide necessary housing, and this often leads to the identification of specific areas for tall building development clusters – with a resulting tacit acceptance of loss of access to daylight in these areas. Mathew Frith, Director of Policy and Research at the London Wildlife Trust, points out that clusters of tall buildings also cause additional cooling and disruptive wind-tunnelling effects, which provide a more hostile growing environment and can kill plants through desiccation and windburn.

The introduction to the Government’s Rights to Light (2) research published by the Law Commission in 2015 begins by defending the human need for natural light: Natural light inside buildings is immensely important for comfortable living and working. We like and want natural light in our kitchens, and at our desks; people like to have a window seat and most people thoroughly dislike a windowless room. The amount of natural light that a window lets in depends upon what is outside that window, and particularly upon the proximity of other buildings.

However, the report goes on to prioritise development over this need: The legal system recognises the value of natural light inside buildings, but because available space is finite it has to strike a balance between the importance of light and the importance of the construction of homes and offices, and the provision of jobs, schools and other essentials.

Although these statements relate to natural light in buildings, it is clear that the deprioritisation of natural light is applied to green spaces as well as to dwellings.

Old Paradise Gardens (Colin Wing, September 2020)

Setting new standards

There is limited quantitative evidence to demonstrate the need for access to sunlight; this is the challenge thrown at those campaigning for better protection in the planning process. All the authors of the Garden Museum’s report accept that their evidence is in part anecdotal, but they suggest a precautionary approach on the basis of this evidence. Our environment is too fragile and too important to lose through lack of prior consideration.

On that basis, the campaign has called for the GLA to amend its guidance. The following statement has been suggested by the LPG as an amended policy.

All developments should seek to maximize access to natural daylight in public open spaces for the benefit of everyone. In general it is expected that public open spaces should receive a minimum of six hours on at least 50% of the area at the equinox. It is expected that all developments should demonstrate how they will protect:

daylight for more than two hours on all parts of a children’s playgrounds and other outside sporting facilities such as fitness areas, football pitches etc, to maintain the amenity value; and
• the future sustainability of existing horticultural planting schemes based on an ecological assessment of biodiversity and climate value, in accordance with the Natural Capital Accounting methodology agreed in the Mayor’s London Plan.

There will also be a presumption against supporting a proposal which:
• reduces existing daylight access below the six-hour limit; or
• further reduces access to daylight in a space which already fails this standard.

George Hudson, Green London Curator at the Garden Museum, said: “We are grateful to have the support of London Parks & Gardens in our campaign to protect London’s green spaces from being cast into shadow by new tall buildings. Recently, our campaign has attracted the attention of assembly members at City Hall, and we are in conversation with them. The importance of sunlight is often understated, if not forgotten about completely.”

The LPG will update members on the progress of the campaign, and will continue to support this policy initiative.

1 www.gov.uk/guidance/light-pollution

2 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment data/file/391683/44872 HC 796 Law Commission_356_WEB pdf

Green Lewisham

By Candy Blackham

LPG volunteer Candy Blackham, whose book Green Lewisham was published in July 2022, gives a taste of the history and significance both personal and societal – of the green spaces on her doorstep.

When COVID-19 arrived in the spring of 2020, I felt imprisoned. The air was heavy with fear and my spirits sank ever lower, until the day I realised that my prison door had always stood open. Despite restrictions on socialising, I could still walk in the parks. I ventured out cautiously, my health improved, and my spirits rose.

I began to appreciate the complex relationships in my surroundings, and to wonder about lessons for urban living in Lewisham and elsewhere. I found ongoing patterns of concern for others, ongoing needs in our society, and a deep appreciation of nature and natural open spaces and the benefits they bring to people. I was surprised at how this understanding had been applied to urban developments in the past, and how little knowledge is new.

I also gained hours of enjoyment and peace at a very difficult time; pain from a lower back injury is alleviated by walking, and I am curious about new places and new ideas. I wanted to share that enjoyment – so, I decided to write a book. I consulted the London Parks & Gardens Inventory and started amassing a reference library. Where would we have been without obliging delivery people and postmen?
Lewisham was in the Kent countryside less than two centuries ago. London’s expansion, particularly from the mid-19th century onwards, was driven by an increasing population and their housing needs, and a number of factors conspired against areas such as Lewisham: changes due to industrialisation, the creation of new roads and new railway networks, changing political concerns, changes in land ownership, and new social patterns and social needs, particularly after the First World War.

Downham Woodland Walk (Candy Blackham)

So why are there any green spaces left in Lewisham? Some philanthropic landowners sold land below market value or donated land. Others lobbied for green spaces to be preserved from housing developments. Today, individuals still make a difference: local Lewisham residents convert derelict land into community gardens; there are thirty-six allotments, all with long waiting lists; beekeepers abound. The Quaggy Waterways Action Group have changed the management of the River Quaggy through its urban environment, enhancing parks and benefiting wildlife.
Caring for parks and nature reserves is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking. Lewisham Council and management company Glendale do a tremendous job, greatly helped by park Friends groups. Perhaps this relationship between professional and amateur gardeners has the potential for development, with increased opportunities for practical learning and training in horticulture? The restrictions imposed during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 reminded people of the importance of green spaces, particularly for those living in urban areas; volunteering for community gardens, parks and nature reserves increased and parks were well used. People felt a need to be closer to living plants, birds and the wildlife in the city, and wanted to eat food they had grown.

This trend takes us back 100 years, to an earlier time of positive connection between population growth and green space preservation. Development after the First World War often came in the form of new housing estates built on farmland. The Addison Act of 1919 had addressed the appalling living conditions in inner London, and London County Council, together with local councils, took inspiration for their new developments from Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept of 1898. This proposed tree-lined roads, recreation grounds, communal green spaces, and other community facilities in the new estates. Contemporary housing developers have been less generous than their predecessors, creating ‘pocket parks’ or green ‘architecture’ rather than offering the recreation grounds or public parks of the past. Is this good enough?

Downham Fields (Candy Blackham)

Surely the lesson of the past is that we live in a community, and it is for us individually and as a community to ensure our green spaces continue green and go on enhancing our living conditions. In the words of John Claudius Loudon in 1829: “It is much to be regretted, we think, that in the numerous enclosure acts which have been passed during the last fifty years, provision was not made for a public green, playground, or garden, for every village in the parishes in which such enclosures took place.”

Natural spaces are too easily set aside in favour of profit; if only planners would pay heed to those who watched with sadness as their countryside disappeared under London’s urban growth.