Burgess Park in Southwark, South London, was identified as a good site for a major new London Park in the 1943-4 Abercrombie County of London Plan. Sir Patrick Abercrombie, who was on the Council of the ILA (which became the Landscape Institute) had two reasons for choosing the site (1) many of the houses which then occupied the land had been damaged during the Blitz, making it an area of opportunity (2) it created one of the links in his brilliant proposal for a Londonwide web of open space.
Progress was slow in the 39 years until the lake was opened (in 1982) and the results were disappointing. This was because of the difficulty of clearing the land: the owners of the surviving houses and businesses did not want to move. Another problem was that four of the landscape architects involved died young: Simon Rendell, David Ashmore, Adrian Brunswick and Michael Norton.
Hunter Davies (famous as a biographer of the Beatles and editor of the Sunday Times Colour Supplement) wrote in 1983 that ‘no one, anywhere in the world, has ever bulldozed the urban landscape on such a scale, just to make a bit of open space’. The quality of the that ‘bit of open space’ declined in the next decade. But when Southwark Council took ownership from the GLC the park’s fortunes began to revive. The creation of Chumleigh Gardens was a great step forward.
In 2008 Boris Johnson announced a funding competition for London parks. Burgess Park won £2m. Southwark chipped in another £6m and LDA Design were commissioned to replan and redesign Burgess Park. Though not fully implemented, their work transformed a sad and neglected space into a very well-used public park. Their concept was bolder than the scheme that was built. But the key structuring principle, of two axial paths following desire lines, was adopted and must have a central role in making the park so much better used than it used to be. The planting, mounding and facilities were also greatly improved. As generous managers, Southwark Council allows cycling and BBQs. Let’s hope the Royal Parks managers follow its example.