Birkenhead Park, the pioneering People’s Park

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Date of Submission: 13/09/2023
Criteria: (i)(ii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Department for Culture, Media and Sport
State, Province or Region:
North West, England
Coordinates: N53 23 37 W3 02 36
Ref.: 6688

Description

Birkenhead Park is situated in the town of Birkenhead, in the Wirral Peninsula. The proposed site includes the originally designed parkland (44 ha), the Park’s eight lodges, and a selection of the mid- 19th century residential properties. The total site area is 51 ha.

Designed in the style of the English Landscape School, its undulating parkland consists of a crafted combination of earthworks, substantial tree stands, lakes, shrubs and grassland, and iconic buildings and structures. The core area of historic significance is bordered by Victorian villas, in line with the 1844 plan.

Aerial views reveal how the Park’s ‘organic’ shape breaks with the grid-iron of surrounding streets, creating the sense of a picturesque ‘natural’ landscape. The manner of its design – the irregularity of the lakes, planting, earth modelling, rockwork, as well as its carefully ‘hidden and revealed’ views – provides a feeling of countryside in an urban conurbation. The Boat House, the Swiss Bridge, the Rockery, the Grand Entrance as well as the Park’s six lodges (e.g. Italian, Gothic, Castellated, Normans, and Central) reflect different architectural styles, to enable all visitors to appreciate key phases in architectural history and the development of major European styles. There is no principal focal point, and all elements are of equal importance. This egalitarian approach shaped Birkenhead Park as a pioneering ‘democratic landscape’.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Birkenhead Park, the pioneering People’s Park, is a major innovation of modern society. At a time when most designed landscapes were private estates and therefore not accessible to the public, Birkenhead Park was purpose-built and publicly funded by a local municipal authority for all its citizens. The social and political concepts that it embodies (i.e. providing a high quality community place where the barriers of social class, age, colour and creed are non-existent) subsequently influenced the creation of urban public parks worldwide and changed the way we perceive the form of towns and cities nowadays.

Birkenhead Park was laid out in the picturesque manner in the 1840s, in response to, and anticipation of, a rapidly growing urban population during the Industrial Revolution. The Park formed a key component in a much wider, and comprehensive, town planning scheme for the new town of Birkenhead. Its formation and design were intended to serve as an antidote to the poor living conditions commonly experienced in industrial cities at the time. It was wholly and freely accessible to all people regardless of their position in society – as it still is today. As parks and green spaces throughout the world, it has been even more important in recent times, providing a much-needed sanctuary for people during the coronavirus pandemic. It has shown that it continues to serve the social purpose for which it was created: supporting the public health and recreational needs of the whole population.

The cultural landscape of Birkenhead Park is also a milestone in the evolution of designed landscapes. The Park's designer, Joseph Paxton, was an exponent of the design concepts known as the English landscape school, and successfully transferred them into public open space in an urban context. These principles were used to shape an egalitarian approach to landscape design, in which all elements are of equal importance. As well as building on the site’s natural features, Paxton placed a variety of architectural components throughout the landscape to create Birkenhead’s equivalent of the ‘Grand Tour’, where visitors could imagine travelling between the sights of western Europe by simply strolling through the Park. Birkenhead Park was created as a place to stir the emotions, and for all people to enjoy without exception.

By the inclusion of private housing development around the perimeter of the Park, the project was also an exemplar in terms of finance. It pioneered the use for public infrastructure investment of what is now known as land value capture (the capture and use of rising land values consequent on public investment and improvement). This has subsequently been used in many parts of the world to offset the cost of urban infrastructure, most notably in the post-war British New Towns.

Furthermore, the international agenda for ’green infrastructures’ being a response to public health and climate change, was foreshadowed by Birkenhead Park. By establishing the health benefits of urban public parks, the Park was a significant contribution to the public health movement of the 19th century. It contributed to the understanding in Britain, and later across the world, of the relationship between good public health and the quality of the environment.

Criterion (i): Birkenhead Park is the masterpiece of Joseph Paxton, a highly inventive horticulturalist and landscape designer of his time. His plan drew on the central ideas of the English Landscape School – one of England's greatest contributions to the visual arts –, bringing them into a public open space. Its ‘picturesque’ parkland is a work of art, of great originality, and excellence, which stirs the emotions. Taking an egalitarian approach, Paxton created a Park for all members of society to enjoy, and provided a prototype for urban public parks which was subsequently applied in the creation of many other parks worldwide.

Criterion (ii): As the forerunner of urban public parks, Birkenhead Park is a key development in town planning and landscape design. Established as a shared place of informal naturalism within the grid-iron of surrounding streets, it anticipated the major expansion of Birkenhead New Town. As a political and social innovation of the first order, it created a new funding model for urban parks and demonstrated that a municipal authority could provide green infrastructure to serve all classes of its citizens. The ideas that it embodies have been applied in the development of ‘People’s Parks’, a concept replicated across the globe.

Criterion (iv): Birkenhead Park is an outstanding example of a cultural landscape which was to become a key element in urban living. It is a clear expression of how the needs of urban dwellers could be met, at the outset of the Industrial Revolution and rapid urbanisation. The rise of industry led to widespread public health problems, and public parks, as salubrious ‘lungs’ of the new towns, were central to new strategies to combat them. As such, Birkenhead Park is a pioneering urban green space. It has been in continuous use, thus maintaining its original role as the ‘People’s Garden’.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Authenticity

Birkenhead Park’s cultural values are truthfully and credibly expressed through a wide range of attributes. Its layout, which remains the same as when designed and created in accordance with Paxton’s plan, still represents an extensive landscape that contrasts with the rectilinear street pattern surrounding the landscape. Both the Park’s enclosed areas and open meadows still provide a strong feeling of countryside, breaking with the urban environment.

The overall design has hardly been altered and the Park functions very much in the way it was designed. The picturesque style of its landscape remains evident, along with its original buildings and structures, which together provide a high-quality designed public parkland which continues to be available for everyone’s enjoyment. As there is no principal focal point, the landscape at Birkenhead Park can still be appreciated and interpreted by people of different classes, as an egalitarian place, designed with a true sense of freedom and openness.

The more permanent features in stone, brick, earth and water, forming the ‘bones’ of the design, have remained. The original materials survive in a large degree, and more than what could be expected for a designed landscape of this age. The present structure of tree and shrub planting provides good evidence of what Paxton envisaged for the Park, although the level of maintenance is not as great as when Edward Kemp was the Park’s supervisor. The historical illustrations of the Park, through archive footage such as photographs, postcards and drawings, are numerous.

From a ‘people’ perspective, the Park is still used as originally intended, both for passive recreation (promenading) and active recreation (individual and collective sports). Likewise, since its creation, it has been used for social gatherings, demonstrations, events and major local and national celebrations, such as commemoration days and the Park’s anniversaries.

The Park has undergone several minor alterations and improvements over its 175-year life. These include a cricket pavilion, a children’s playground, and a pedestrian avenue of trees to commemorate the Queen’s coronation in 1953. They all reflect a response to the needs of the people using the Park. Otherwise, most other new elements are to be found in the buffer zone, rather than the ‘core’. Hence, the Park provides an authentic realisation of Paxton’s vision.

Integrity

The core area has high integrity in terms of its boundaries and includes all the key attributes which convey the Park’s significance. The extent of the buffer zone has been devised to encompass all other areas that had been intended for residential development which was never realised. Together, the core and buffer zones protect the Park’s relationship with its surrounding urban environment, as Paxton intended.

The Park is remarkably intact. All original built features – including the gateways and lodges – remain intact, and the original parkland layout has not been altered. Although there was serious decay during the Second World War, including the loss of the cast iron railings as part of a national campaign to use non-essential items for war production, a major restoration project in the 2000s (£11.7m) brought much of the Park back to high standards (including repairing infrastructure, restoring railings, refurbishment of the lakes and additional planting). Generally, the ‘hard’ landscape materials retain a high degree of integrity, and ‘soft’ landscape needs continued attention to preserve the original design concept. There are some inconsistent boundary treatments though, which are apparent in the diversity and inappropriateness of fencing and hedging to the Park Drive’s external boundaries.

Beyond the original Park, the areas that were originally intended for associated residential development are within the Conservation Area. The Conservation Area has been drawn to protect the Park’s relationship with its surrounding urban environment – in accordance with art. 7 of the Florence Charter which states ‘the historic garden cannot be isolated from its own particular environment, whether urban or rural, artificial or natural’. While most individual original houses around the Park are well preserved, some of them suffer from neglect. Those plots not developed as housing, were later annexed as additional parkland (such as the bowling greens, Boothby Ground, and the plot on which the Visitor Centre was built) or were mainly developed for other public and sports uses, including two schools (Wirral Hospital School’s Joseph Paxton Campus and Birkenhead Park School that opened as ‘Birkenhead Girls Secondary School’ in 1926), and a rugby club – whose original building dates from the 1880s.

Despite the fact that Birkenhead – like its neighbour Liverpool – has suffered significant economic decline during the later twentieth century, there was much decay and little pressure for change or redevelopment in or near the Park.

In addition, the original social purpose of catering for all social classes endures. Recreational uses, such as the playing of club cricket matches continue as they did even before the Park was officially opened in April 1847.

Comparison with other similar properties

There is currently no ‘urban public park’ inscribed on the World Heritage List which was created as such (i.e. as part of a town planning project of the Industrial Revolution, accessible for the well-being of all persons, and not inscribed primarily because of its association with one or more architectural components). Although there are a few designed landscapes on the WHL that share similar values with Birkenhead Park e.g. Buen Retiro (royal park, Spain), Muskauer Park (country park, Germany/Poland), Carlton Gardens (exhibition garden, Australia), Singapore Botanical Gardens (botanic garden, Singapore) they are all different in date, form and nature, and none was created as an ‘urban public park’.

Whilst the ‘Public Parks Movement’ began in the early 19th century – initially through the opening of private parks and gardens to the public – Birkenhead Park started a new era for publicly funded and purpose-made public parks. It is situated at the beginning of a worldwide movement in which governments acted to create places called public parks. As an exemplar, it introduced and diffused new urban design concepts, solutions and innovations with global significance, and became a model for many public parks of international significance. Most significantly, the Park's concepts had a specific and well documented impact on New York's Central Park – and through that example, on public park design at many thousands of other locations in the United States and worldwide. While Birkenhead Park created a precedent for public parks, Olmsted’s practice promoted the diffusion of these egalitarian principles around the world. The ambition to see them inscribed on the WHL reflects a growing desire to protect public parks as a unique type of cultural landscape, and an enduring element of modern society. Birkenhead Park’s widespread replication as a designed landscape and a town planning concept, means that it ranks in international significance alongside World Heritage Sites such as the New Town of Edinburgh and The Paseo del Prado and El Buen Retiro.

Since the importance of public parks to modern society is not always fully recognised and supported by political and social authorities around the world, Birkenhead Park, the pioneering People’s Park’s inscription on the World Heritage List would fill a gap. It would be a first step towards recognising how essential urban public parks are and ensuring their protection and safeguarding for future generations.