The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town

The London Square
The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town

by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan
(New Haven:Yale University Press, 2012)

Reviewed by Patrice Todisco
(www.landscapenotes.com)

This has been an exciting year for London as the city celebrated the Queen's Jubilee and hosts the summer Olympics. Creating unparalleled opportunities to highlight history and culture within a framework of modern design and innovation both events have featured all that makes London unique, including its beloved public spaces.

Landscape architect and historian, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan has written The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town, a comprehensive survey of the political, social and environmental forces and complex mix of users and uses that created the urban form most distinctly aligned with London - the residential garden square.

Elegantly written and extensively illustrated, The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town traces the evolution of the iconic space from the 17th century to the present day, providing an unflinching evaluation of both its positive and negative attributes. Despite a range of threats to its integrity, from inadequate maintenance to traffic encroachments, the residential square has persevered as an enduring symbol of the city representing the "pride of London's planning."

Derived from the Italian piazza, London's garden squares acquired a distinctly British character in the18th century when greenery and a sense of enclosure were incorporated into its design. The inclusion of landscaped open space as part of residential development was widely imitated and the integration of nature within an urban environment set a standard that remains relevant today.

'Square' is used to describe rectangular open spaces and their surrounding houses as well as crescents, circuses and polygons. Although the author's primary focus is on squares designed as part of residential developments, information on London's ceremonial squares is included, most notably when threatened with schemes that compromise their public nature. While his study extends to the edges of Greater London the geographic focus is on squares located within the inner city.

Longstaffe-Gowan is no sentimentalist and presents an honest assessment of the competing political and social narratives that combined to make the square an important, often controversial, public space within the city. The fortunes of London's garden squares have waxed and waned as has the debate over their ownership, management and maintenance.

One of many examples included is "The Battle of the Railings" a campaign during the Second World War described as "not simply a question of supplying scrap metal for munitions....but a battle fought for democracy" at a time when the iron railings represented "an outdated system of social hierarchy."

While efforts to safeguard open space throughout London became active in the late 19th century it was not until 1931 that The London Preservation Act was passed providing protection to 461 squares and enclosures. "The rock upon which all preservation of squares is built," the Act, while imperfect, was one of the first to provide protection to designed landscapes. The need to protect London's garden squares from privatization and inappropriate uses, issues that also confront US cities as they deal with a lack of financial resources to maintain public open space, is ongoing amid development pressure and funding shortfalls.

The organization Longstaffe-Gowan heads, London Parks & Gardens Trust, has created the London Inventory of Historic Greenspaces containing details of 2,500 'green' spaces across Greater London. For more information about the survey visit: www.londongardesnonline.org.uk.

The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town succeeds on many levels. An impeccably researched and annotated work of scholarship the book is, at its core, an engrossing narrative describing London's evolving attitudes regarding the value and importance of public open space.