Tue 29 Sep 2020 06.00 BSTLast modified on Tue 29 Sep 2020 16.45 BST
On a crisp, clear morning just before dawn, the sky above Woodhouse Moor in Leeds is shades of ochre, mauve and pigeon-grey. The park is empty, save the joggers making solitary laps, and I circle the perimeter on foot, too, in search of the rising sun.
During lockdown, we used parks as our gyms, social spaces and – as restrictions eased – our nightclubs and pubs, wringing every drop from our hour or so outside each day. To better understand how we are now using these spaces, I have come to this 26-hectare (64-acre) park, 2km from central Leeds, to spend a day from sunrise to sunset. As I stand at the less lovely end – where tarmac has been laid over wild moorland – the sun rises.
Anja Komatar, a 30-year-old university worker, comes here every day at 6.30am to walk or run, and sometimes in the evening, too, after work. “This park has been lifesaving,” they tell me . “It’s a place for me to switch on, or off. A reset for my day.” Komatar lives alone and has been working from home during the pandemic. They do not have a garden. Without Woodhouse Moor, which is a five-minute walk from their house, they say they would not have coped. “Being stuck in the house was really getting to me. I really empathise with people who don’t have access to parks. It must be horrible.”
Yet, across the UK, many people live without access to green spaces. In Leeds, according to the Green Space Index, 12,553 people live more than a 10-minute walk from their nearest park or green space. (By comparison, only 12,108 Londoners – in a city with a population 20 times bigger than Leeds’ – live more than a 10-minute walk from their nearest park.)
“Parks were a lifeline for so many people during the pandemic,” says Helen Griffiths of Fields in Trust, the conservation charity that put together the Green Space Index. “People finally started to recognise the value of the parks they had on their doorstep.” But parks are not classified as statutory services, meaning there is no legal obligation for local councils to give their residents access to parks for recreation and exercise, even though the health benefits of access to green spaces save the NHS £111m a year (and we are living through a global pandemic that is 48% more deadly for those who are obese). “Parks create savings for the NHS, support mental health, tackle isolation and loneliness, and create more social cohesion,” says Griffiths, arguing that central government should make funding available for park maintenance.
When I approach Michael Otieno, 22, he is standing in the middle of an empty basketball court, wearing headphones, a sweat-stained vest and basketball shorts, thinking about the fact that summer is over. Otieno likes to shoot hoops before the court gets busy, while listening to classical music. “Beethoven at six in the morning hits right,” he laughs. A final-year engineering student at the University of Leeds, he is worried about his tuition moving online. “If I come and get a sweat on, it helps take my mind off things.”
At the adjacent skatepark, Richard Dickson, 29, a neuroscience student at the University of Leeds, is attempting to master the art of board sliding, where the skater slides with the middle of their board on a ledge. “I can do it maybe 10% of the time,” he says. At the skatepark, Dickson explains, there are three crowds. “In the morning, you get these guys,” he says, gesturing to two middle-aged skaters weaving expertly across the park. “They’re quite good. They like to have free run over everything and move around. In the daytime, it gets pretty busy. You have to stick to one piece of equipment and queue. And, in the evening, it’s younger people sitting on the ramps, smoking.”
Usually, Dickson skates in the morning, but last week he made a rare visit to the skate park after dark. “Someone called me a grandad!” he says, wrinkling his nose.
Parks now face an existential threat, with UK councils facing an overall budget shortfall of about £2bn due to Covid-19. “It’s something we’re very concerned about,” says Griffiths. “Green spaces were always at the back of the queue when it came to funding, even before Covid.” Unless a local authority voluntarily enters into a protective agreement with Fields in Trust, it can sell public parks for redevelopment. Only 6% of UK parks are protected in perpetuity by Fields in Trust. Woodhouse Moor is not one of them.
In the absence of a commitment from Leeds city council, local citizens are lobbying to protect the park. Bill McKinnon, a 62-year-old retired civil servant, is the chairman of Friends of Woodhouse Moor and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the park’s history. He overturned plans to build a car park on Monument Moor in 2006, to give Leeds University exclusive use of the tennis courts in 2011, and to have a drive-in cinema on Cinder Moor in 2019.
But McKinnon’s crowning achievement was blocking a trolley-bus scheme through the park in 2016. Every public park needs a McKinnon, who will go to public consultations, write letters and generally do everything in his power to stop Woodhouse Moor being sold for profit.
I ask McKinnon why he is so committed to fighting for the park. When his father died in 1980, he says, he would go to his local park to be still and grieve. “There will be people here who have lost relatives who want a place to sit and be quiet,” he says. “And they can’t have that if one of these terrible money-making schemes goes ahead. People depend on the park.”
Parks are a great British equaliser. You will find businessmen here, baby-toting parents, weed-smoking students, skaters, lovers, nature-lovers, fitness buffs, homeless people, teenagers on first dates and illegal ravers. Parks absorb our loneliness, grief, hedonism and need for wide, open, quiet space in a teeming metropolis. They are fundamentally democratic: in the park, there is no ownership and we are all equal.
But this absence of hierarchy occasionally leads to tensions here between the students and the locals, especially during term time, when barbecuing, binge-drinking students descend. “It’s just not the same when the students are around,” sighs Nida Khalil, a 32-year-old teaching assistant getting her daily 10,000 steps in after lunch.
Khalil is dressed modestly, a headscarf framing her perfectly made-up face. In Leeds, 7.9% of the population is British-Asian and many live around Woodhouse Moor. Khalil lives next door to a student house. “Generally, they have been loud,” she says, “but the ones we have right now are nice.” Without a garden, she relies on Woodhouse Moor for exercise, and it is hard not to feel aggrieved when the park fills with students. “When the students go home, you have the park to yourself,” she says. “When they come back, there’s so much rubbish everywhere. It’s like a tip.”
In the absence of bars and nightclubs, Woodhouse Moor has become these students’ principal hang-out spot. “I’ve only moved in last week and I’ve been here four times already,” says Anisha Pawar, 19, who is in her second year at the University of Leeds. “I never came here last year.” She is sitting with a group of fellow students. As I leave them to it, more friends turn up, with cans of cider and beer.
In a playground 15 metres (50ft) away from the carousing students, Rebecca Dawson talks distractedly to me while feeding her son, Kilian, three, a fruit string. “We live in two rooms,” says Dawson, a 27-year-old chef. “Me, my partner and my son share a room. It’s all right, but this is our only outdoor space … it’s really hard to just stay in a small, confined space.” During lockdown, the playground was shut. Now that it has reopened, Dawson does not feel she can say no when Kilian asks to come. Fruit string finished, Kilian makes for the slide, his mother close behind.
The sun blazes. Woodhouse Moor has taken on the atmosphere of a music festival this afternoon, particularly the north end of the park, which borders terraced housing, where students sit on doorsteps gossiping and drinking tea, or pace their front gardens vaping in their pyjamas. Tinny speakers pant trap music. I count three groups of students laughing and chanting as they drink beer through a funnel.
Woodhouse Moor is Leeds’ oldest public park, founded in 1857 on ancient moorland. Queen Victoria visited the park the following year, greeted by 26,000 children singing hymns, controlled by teachers bearing placards reading “prepare to cheer”, “sing” and “silence”. By the 20th century, Boer war veterans played cards in a pavilion at the Woodhouse Lane entrance to the park, now converted into a curry house. During the second world war, locals were protected by two air raid shelters – you can still see the shelters’ contours rising beneath the grass.
Before there were public parks, there were royal parks, owned by the monarchy, for their amusement and recreation. Public parks were a response to the rapid industrialisation of the 19th century. “The problem that parks sought to address was urban living,” says David Churchill of the University of Leeds. “Cities were growing at a rapid rate, and that brought with it outbreaks of disease. Parks were supposed to improve the city: to make it healthier, more pleasant to look at and a more edifying place to live.” They were intended to foster good social relations. “The founders of the parks were concerned about segregation,” Churchill says. “Parks were supposed to be a place where people could come together and get to know each other.”
But since their inception, there has been a conflict between the lofty, civic-minded intentions of Victorian park pioneers and the reality of how parks are used. (This summer, Woodhouse Moor was the site of illegal raves, to the consternation of local residents.) “There has always been conflict between the users of parks,” Churchill says. “Some people want a nice, quiet wander around the gardens; others want to drink and play ballgames.” By definition, a park is an insecure space – anyone can enter and exit it freely and use it how they choose, meaning parks are not always safe places, especially for women. In the 90s, David Jackson was jailed for 12 years after he sexually assaulted women walking through the park at night.
Although we tend to think of the Victorians as dour disciplinarians, they saw themselves as progressive reformers. Parks have long been spaces not just for recreation, but activism. “Woodhouse Moor has a radical history,” says Churchill. “It’s a natural space for public speaking in the city.” Before secret ballots were introduced in general elections in 1872, public hustings were held in the park; in the 20th century, striking workers would meet there. This summer, Woodhouse Moor became a space for civic organising once again, with Black Lives Matter protests held in the park.
The light is dwindling as Marvina Newton, 35, and I sit together on a park bench. We are at the southernmost tip of the park, near a statue of the Duke of Wellington that has been splattered with red paint. Two men are throwing a rugby ball nearby; Newton’s daughter, Angel, nine, and son, Genesis, eight, play quietly with an iPad, but otherwise there is hardly anyone around. “You couldn’t see the end of the crowd,” Newton remembers of the protest she organised on 21 June. “It was so beautiful. To feel the power of the numbers.”
Newton, a lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Leeds. She held the protest in the park because it felt like a safer, more inclusive space. “When you’re marching on the streets, that comes with a different type of energy,” Newton says. “We wanted to bring people together to educate, unite and heal, because we are all traumatised by racism.” On the morning of the protest, she arrived here at dawn, to meditate. I ask Newton what she wished for as she sat on the grass. “Normally, when people ask me this question, my kids aren’t around.” We look at them – Angel is taking pictures of the sunset on the iPad. “I want my kids to have the same opportunities other kids have and not be treated differently,” she says, finally.
Newton sweeps away, sparkly earrings jangling, she and her kids en route to an anti-racism poetry event. I walk to the north side of the park, autumn leaves crunching underfoot. The park is now a hive of activity, with music and fragments of conversation drifting by and the ubiquitous thud of footballs. Commuters cycle past gossiping students; teenagers flirt on the skate ramps. The air smells of cigarettes. Soft light fades over Woodhouse Moor, the sun setting on a perfect September day and a community connected by this shared, ancient space.