The future prospects of urban parks: The life, times and social order of Victorian public parks as places of social mixing

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bradford
Department Name: Sch of Social and International Studies


This project brings together insights from history, criminology and urban studies to explore the future prospects of city parks as public meeting places, in both the Victorian period and the present day. The aim of the project is to generate a novel understanding of the future social significance and role of public parks and how social groups (might) live together and commingle safely in cosmopolitan cities. It makes connections between the past, the present and the future importance of these public spaces by exploring how they have evolved over time from their origins as spaces of social mixing between diverse groups in Victorian cities. It investigates official and public expectations of what parks might become in terms of their social possibilities and their desired effects aligned with visions of the future, both in the Victorian and contemporary eras. In these ways, the project connects with and advances the AHRC 'Care for the Future' research theme and its central ambition of 'thinking forward through the past'.

The project combines historical analysis with a new contemporary study to explore the experiences and views of people that used and use Victorian parks in terms of their governance, regulation and policing. It therefore engages with the challenges of managing social mixing in public space, including the possibilities for conflict around behaviour, social disorder, and anxieties of otherness in the multi-cultural city. It also explores the outcomes commingling may facilitate in terms of promoting social cohesion and its potential civilising effects.

The project will consider how the public park's original design and rationale remains relevant to the needs of the contemporary city and how it has adapted to changing social conditions. This research will allow us to 'care for the future' of the urban public park, not just by understanding its past and its present, but by translating that understanding into concrete policy proposals for its future governance. The project will provide a reinterpretation and reinvigoration of the vision, governance and sustainability of urban parks in cities of the future. In the context of austerity and local authority spending cuts to non-compulsory public services, including city parks, this is an opportune time to rethink the vision and governance of these public spaces.

The research is based on three Victorian public parks in Leeds, West Yorkshire. Together, these case studies combine a diversity of park types in terms of their social ideals and purposes, the size and social profile of users and stakeholders, and the diversity of experiences of park life from places of grand show and ceremony to informal community parks.

The project contributes new and unique inter-disciplinary insights connecting the arts and humanities with the social sciences. The project findings will feed into public policy debates about the future of cities and engage academic audiences working across disciplines, particularly in social and urban history, law, criminology, sociology, urban policy and cultural studies. The project will engage public audiences through a public exhibition, a free-to-access digital collection of photographs of Victorian parks in Leeds, and via blogs, twitter feeds, and media briefings.

Planned Impact

The principal beneficiaries of the research will be a wide range of organisations that have a role to play in promoting open, tolerant and inclusive public spaces. The research findings will have direct implications for public policies that engage with the role and place of urban parks and public spaces in cities of the future. Through collaboration with Leeds City Council (the Project Partners) the research will engage end users from the outset, feed into the Core Cities Group and inform the Leeds Foresight Future of Cities project which the University of Leeds and Leeds City Council are collaborating with government to establish. Alongside a public policy seminar, these mechanisms will facilitate broader lesson-learning for UK cities. The cross section of park types allows policy considerations to be drawn elsewhere.

Moreover, the effective governance of the public realm remains a national and international concern. The research findings should inform and influence wider debates on public space governance, regulation and policing and how diverse social groups (might) live together and mix socially in cities. The research will identify the conditions under which public parks facilitate and enhance social cohesion and support feelings of safety and security. Consequently, it will inform the work of organisations that promote improvements to public space design and management such as the Commission for the Built Environment (now part of the Design Council). The project will assess how governance and management strategies were (and are) received by park users in the past and the present, and thus provide insights on the basis of which good practice can best be constructed. These insights will inform new thinking about future governance strategies that balance safety and security with openness and tolerance. Hence the findings will be of interest to the Home Office, Government Departments accountable for communities and the environment and local authorities across the country with responsibility for parks. Moreover, the research will generate insights of relevance to a wide variety of organisations which include urban parks within their remit, including the Parks Alliance, comprising a cross-sector group of senior executives, set up in the absence of a national parks body to campaign to 'put public parks at the heart of the drive for healthy, resilient and sustainable communities', English Heritage, the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces, Groundwork, Policy Exchange, and Natural England. A brief and accessible summary of the findings will be widely distributed and contain implications for policy and practice.

In Leeds, the findings will contribute to the public's knowledge about a key aspect of their social and cultural heritage via a public exhibition and digital photographic collection. Hence it will help address the problem identified by a recent English Heritage survey which found a lack of public knowledge about 'park history in general and even fewer considered themselves well informed about the history of their own local park' (Layton-Jones 2014 p.13). The local insights will benefit directly the key agencies tasked with implementing the Parks and Green Spaces Strategy for Leeds (in particular the local authority and the police) and the Leeds Parks and Green Spaces Forum. They will also support wider initiatives by the Council such as the Leeds bid for the European Capital of Culture 2023. The wider public, beyond Leeds, will benefit through the project's potential for policy changes that improve well-being and quality of life and by improved awareness via blogs, twitter feeds and media engagement of the historical experiences of parks and their social role in communities.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/N001788/1 01/11/2015 31/07/2016 £195,703
AH/N001788/2 Transfer AH/N001788/1 01/08/2016 30/11/2017 £123,238