'Re-Assessing' London's Squares: The Development of Preservation Policy 1880-1931

By Sakai, Aya | The Town Planning Review, November 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

'Re-Assessing' London's Squares: The Development of Preservation Policy 1880-1931


Sakai, Aya, The Town Planning Review


London's squares were reassessed by two incompatible interests in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first viewed the squares as financial assets and development land; the second considered them as social benefits and urban open spaces, leading to substantial public interventions: the London Squares and Enclosures (Preservation) Act 1906 and the London Squares Preservation Act 1931. This article explores the developing policy process by examining the roles of and interactions between private interests, social reformers, governmental agencies and the wider public. It concludes that social reformers took an intermediate position, working to transform the squares' cultural and social values to the wider public, to government and to Parliament.

The London Squares Preservation Act was enacted by Parliament in 1931 to protect its squares from urban development. The capital's squares were the products of London's early modern real-estate model of leasehold development by ground landlords (Olsen, 1964; Cannadine, 1980). However, their open space character became threatened by building developments in late nineteenth-century London and this pressure had strengthened by the early twentieth century. Landowners and urban developers reassessed open spaces as developable land and potential financial assets; even traditional open spaces such as commons were threatened by building developments (Malchow, 1985). At the same time, however, the spatial value of open space became increasingly appreciated in relation to public health improvement (Meller, 1976).

The two incompatible ideas about modern open spaces in cities, namely their private status as financial assets and their public social value, resulted in the growth of public interventions to promote and protect open spaces in and around London. To consider the ways in which public interventions to protect privately owned open spaces, such as the squares, against urban developments were conceived and undertaken, this article explores the interaction between individuals, voluntary groups and governmental institutions in three areas: (i) the growth of a recognition of public interest in the squares as open spaces; (ii) the engagement of individuals, social reform groups and public institutions in some critical examples of policy formulation; and (iii) the processes leading to the establishment of state regulation in 1906 and 1931.

First, as background, and using secondary sources, the article begins with an examination of the process of establishing the management system both of and immediately around London's squares. Public interest in the squares evolved not only through their long history since the seventeenth century, but also through urban improvement projects led by social reformers in the nineteenth century. Among the various social reform groups which worked to improve the urban environments (Ranlett, 1983), the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association contributed the most to establishing the wider public interest in preserving open spaces in the densely developed city by declaring the value of such spaces and by creating them through converting disused small open spaces (e.g. churchyards).

The article then explores two critical examples in which squares were threatened by urban development; through these, it is possible to distinguish the social and institutional engagements which were developed to protect the squares. The discussion then moves on to consider the ways in which the squares, as privately owned open space, were secured by state intervention from building development, notably by the London County Council (LCC) using its resources to obtain new, statutory local powers from Parliament, by examining the concepts and aims of the London Squares and Enclosures (Preservation) Act of 1906 and the London Squares Preservation Act of 1931.

By focusing on the evolution of preservation policy to protect London's squares, this article contributes to the wider discussion on the modernisation of the city. …

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