Why Does London Have So Many Parks?

The park at Redcliff Square

by James A. Bacon

In the United States, we have gated communities. In the United Kingdom, the Brits have gated parks. They call them “key parks” because it takes a key to enter.

There is just such a park near where we are staying. The Bacon family walks past it every day on the way to the Underground. The beautifully manicured park has a grassy open area enclosed by trees, shrubs and a cast-iron fence. We tried to find a way in. Every gate was locked. We found it baffling. Only later were we told that key parks were a common feature around London.

In the U.S., we assume that parks are meant for the benefit of all. The existence of an institution such as private parks in a major city struck me as almost shocking. That’s one of the benefits of visiting other places — it challenges suppositions that there may be only one way to do a thing. Upon reflection, I can see the logic of the key park.

private_gardenI am conjecturing here: Redcliff Square was built as an amenity for the owners of the handsome buildings surrounding the park. Buy a house (or rent an apartment — I’m not sure who occupies the buildings along the street) and you enjoy access to the park. In the States, proximity to public parks adds value to nearby real estate. I suppose in London, proximity to a key park, which keeps out the riff-raff like American tourists, adds even more value to nearby real estate. (At least it does if you have a key.)

London has a remarkable number of parks, some public, some private. Google a map of London and you’ll see not only the massive Hyde Park and Regents Park but dozens and dozens of smaller neighborhood parks. No matter where you live in the city, you’re only a couple of blocks from a park. (You may not have access to it, but at least you can enjoy the view while walking past it!)

A small park, including statutory, installed by the wealthy Grosvenor family.

Insofar as London parks are built by developers and maintained by private property owners, they provide a partial amenity for the general public at private expense. Personally, I like the idea of developers building parks and handing them over to local government for public maintenance and publnic enjoyment. But, then, we probably would end up with a lot fewer parks that way.

Update: According to the London Evening Standard, municipal authorities are providing funding for seven new parks and the New London Landscape is brainstorming all kinds of new ideas. “Among the exciting new range of watery spaces proposed are floating gardens in Docklands, a linear lido along Regent’s Canal … and a reinstated River Fleet channel as a new low-line park. The subterranean river, below Fleet Street in the City, has been covered since 1769. It would be opened up below street level, with pedestriran footpaths either side.”

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14 responses to “Why Does London Have So Many Parks?”

  1. larryg Avatar

    worth finding out more about…………….

    such parkland could also be potentially viewed as more land for more density.. in your world..

    which gets us to the actual value of the land – and who is paying taxes on it..

    public parks – everyone’s taxes go to it and everyone has access to it.

    how about private? how does that work?

    I think it’s pretty safe to say – in a place like Washington or New York – a developer would not buy a property -develop half of it and turn the other half into a “key” park.. right?

    or maybe they would… maybe TE has some thoughts or perhaps our resident world traveler – DonR.

  2. However, Washington, DC is basically tied with New York among US cities …


  3. Richmond has 62.5 sq mi of area which equals 40,000 acres.

    It has 2,823 acres of parkland for a percentage of 14.1%. Well under DC’s 19.1% or New York’s 19.6%


    1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

      Way to bury the lede Don.

      While it’s true that Richmond is far behind the Best City in the World (NYC) and the seat of American federal power, you fail to mention it’s also behind the cultural and linguistic Hellscape that is Boston. There is the true shame.

      Although there is some comfort in being ahead of the hive of scum and villainy known as Philadelphia.

    2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      If you look at parks, open space and recreational facilities, Manhattan has 25%.

      1. larryg Avatar

        you know one of the things that’s been talked about over time here in BR is how local govt goes about valuing property along with the concept of best and appropriate use…

        Then Jim and other kindred Smart Growth types – talk about how city govt suppress density.. which has undesirable consequences with respect to affordable housing especially on the lower tier workforce.

        I’m not advocating this – but I do point out that city planners could designate residential neighborhoods as well as parks as higher density – just as equally as they could allow taller buildings.

        Once a single family detached neighborhood is designated as being more valuable for increased density – then the taxes on that property go up – and people end up moving to properties that are valued less.

        so cities do have options other than higher, taller existing buildings if they do want more density.

        I’m sure that TMT might confirm that some residential around Tysons got that treatment – and then sold their properties to developers who would then build new and more dense than the previous residential.

        Others, like Jim, might , unsurprisingly, advocate letting the market decide where properties should become more dense…

        with some caveats – developers don’t build roads, rail nor water/sewer – you just can’t plop down a 40 story building where the water/sewer and transportation (and other) infrastructure was sized for 40 single family homes..

        1. TooManyTaxes Avatar


          Re: Tysons. Much of the existing residential in Tysons is not close to the rail stations. But the McLean Commons garden apartments are. They are relatively affordable and will be torn down for higher density construction. Fairfax County is requiring 20% workforce housing for all rezoned projects. It is not requiring any affordable (i.e., less expensive) housing because the land and construction costs are simply too high.

          The Tysons Plan requires updates and increases in public facilities from water to sewer to schools to police stations. Every rezoning is responsible for a fair share thereof. Tysons will have all the facilities to be a desirable, but quite expensive, place to live and/or work.

  4. I suspect that there is some relationship between population density and percent open space.

    1. Depends on how you classify “open space.” Richmond has lots of open space — it’s just useless office park lawns, little patches of trees, grassed-over median strips, that sort of thing. The land is functionally useless. It does not exist in a form that lends itself to any kind of use.

      My working thesis is that the more expensive the real estate, the greater the incentive for property owners to convert useless, non-functional space to parks, gardens, plazas, streetscapes or something that adds to the sense of place. There’s plenty of evidence that here in London, and I’ll write about it if I have time.

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Got to live brit elitism and class system — why we had revolution

  6. larryg Avatar

    I’m still ruminating over Jim complaining the buildings not being high enough for optimal density because of nasty gov zoning but not a word about how all those parks also don’t detract from optimal density…and they’re using tax dollars to boot!

    where is that dang ROI for parks?


  7. charlie Avatar

    Gramercy Park in NYC comes to mind.

  8. […] inestimable Jim Bacon over at Bacon’s Rebellion asks a question that has bothered me from the advent of the suburbanization of the Fredericksburg area to the present […]

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