AHRC Project

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

November 2015 – November 2017

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Introduction

The aim of the Leeds Parks Project is to contribute to thinking about the future prospects of public parks through an understanding of their past as well as knowledge of the present. The two-year research project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council with Leeds City Council Parks and Countryside Department as partners, combined historical analysis with a contemporary study, into the social purpose, uses and future expectations of public parks in the city of Leeds, both at the time of their foundation in the Victorian era and today.

Historical archival research on the acquisition and early life of a number of case study parks in Leeds reveals the processes by which parks were acquired and aspirations for their future during the time of their inception.

The contemporary study comprised a city-wide public survey and 165 interviews with park users, ‘friends’ groups, the council and other city services. The survey, which included questions on use, visitor preferences and non-use of parks, as well as resident’s hopes and fears for the future of parks in Leeds, was available online and sent to a random sample of 20,000 households. We received over 6,400 responses which we weighted by gender & ethnicity.

Conceptual Framework

Research Questions

‘Spaces of experience’ in the past
  • How did historical subjects experience and interpret their everyday lives, events and relations, in particular Victorian city parks?
  • To what extent do experiences depart from/shaped by expectations?
‘Horizons of expectation’ in the past
  • How did historical subjects (governors and governed) envision the future?
  • What did they expect parks might become in terms of their social promise and desired effects?
  • What do those visions reveal about the urban imagination of the Victorians?
‘Spaces of experience’ in the present
  • How do contemporary subjects experience and interpret their everyday lives, events and relations, in particular Victorian city parks?
  • To what extent do experiences depart from/shaped by expectations?
  • What new social roles and functions are public parks expected to play in the multi-cultural city?
‘Horizons of expectation’ in the present
  • How do contemporary subjects envision the future?
  • What are the (new or changed) expectations about and visions for the future promise of public parks? To what extent are these multiple or contested?
  • Are these visions socially sustainable, romantic or idealistic, and what do they reveal about the contemporary age?

Case Studies

  • Roundhay Park, Woodhouse Moor and Cross Flatts Park
  • Opened for public use during the Victorian era
  • The selection of parks draw out the diversity of:
    • Ideals concerning the social purpose(s) of parks
    • Size and social profile of users and stakeholders, with consequences for governance and regulation
    • Experiences of park life, from the more ceremonial through to the familiar and informal