Green spaces for growing urban populations: the legacy of Octavia Hill in London

I can go to work to CIH’s London offices, following two ways, one through Chancery Lane tube and the other through King’s Cross. I like both ways but have a slight preference for the King’s Cross way, as that takes me through St George’s Gardens.

As an Albanian in London, I appreciate urban green spaces. In Tirana, previous parks and small gardens, have been taken up by new tall buildings, housing the growing urban population. Finding that balance between urban growth and maintaining green spaces, is difficult and needs financial means, a lot of good will and determined champions. Octavia Hill was one of those.

Getting from King’s Cross to Grays Inn road, can be done in many ways but the best is through a number of back streets. This is my secret itinerary for Londoners or visitors that want to discover two hidden gems and parts of London’s history.

When Coming out of Kings Cross station, follow Argyle street, then around a pub on to Whidborne street, then cross a little passage on to Harrison street.

The first green oasis you will see, is Regent Square Gardens. The square was once land owned by the Harrison family and used for brick-making in 1700s, subsequently turned into land for building houses, in the 1800s.

After reading the notice board, I learn that the owner of the land, Thomas Harrison, applied to Parliament for an Act granting him permission to build houses in the square, which was received 6 months later. I cannot imagine the frustration of housing associations or other house builders, if they had to go through Parliament, to get planning permission, imagine the ‘red tape’!

Building the houses and keeping the gardens, in what is quite a big amount of land, is great. They benefit everyone, inhabitants and visitors alike.

The second more unusual oasis as you continue, on Sidmouth street and then turn left, when you see a little passage, is St George’s gardens.

This is where the role of Octavia Hill was important. She was the force behind the campaign that pioneered turning disused graveyards, into ‘open air sitting-rooms’ for the poor.

So yes, if you are wondering, these gardens used to be burial grounds, up until the early 1800 but were closed, after becoming overcrowded and falling into a bad state.

I have to say the first time I suddenly found myself in these gardens, I had a strange feeling, walking into a beautiful green space with graves and dead bodies around me. I looked to see that I wasn’t the only one there and was pleased that there were other people. Albanians have a different relation to graveyards, which are often clustered together, away from the city. People pay visits to the graves of their dear ones regularly and cemeteries are the place where the dead and the alive meet, for a short period of time.

So for me, sitting on the grass next to a graveyard, is not something I would have done spontaneously. I have now got used to it and appreciate the trees, the green and calm of the place.

Going back to Octavia Hill, she was a a champion of many things. She was the first ‘housing manager’ at it were, of housing schemes for working people. She was the co-founder of the National Trust, a genius invention that preserves places of historic interest or natural beauty. And the creator of the idea of turning graveyards into urban green spaces. For more, our friends at Derwent Living, housing association have a blog on her. The social housing sector sees Octavia Hill as its direct precursor and value her legacy.

I go sometimes for lunch and sit at one of these benches and although at first the place may seem a bit eerie, it is a good place to rest. And sometimes reflect on the value of history, the pioneering role and valuable contributions to society of exceptional people and how such inspiring actions can be generated and multiplied. Tirana needs a champion of green spaces that is able to save some land from developers’ hands which can be turned into gardens and playgrounds for everyone.

To finish off, some flowers and the lush vegetation in a garden, that is well looked after.

St Georges gardens, near Kings Cross, London


One thought on “Green spaces for growing urban populations: the legacy of Octavia Hill in London

  1. Pingback: Past (loved) but unfinished projects, how do you feel about them? What do you do with them? | Laura's Little Things

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