Healthy Cities: Medical practitioners and the creation of public parks & garden cities

By Clare Hickman

In 1907, London County Councillor, George Haw asserted that

If the parks are the lungs of London, the lungs must have been in a very weak condition before the London County Council (LCC) was created [in 1889]. That body came along like a benevolent physician with healing in its train. It might be said that it found London suffering from the shortcomings of one lung, and has since restored it to the blessings of two lungs.[1]

Here the city is portrayed as a sick body, the governing body of the council is the doctor, and the parks are spaces which can help restore health to the ailing urban fabric. As I hope to show, nineteenth-century medical practitioners were themselves already acting as physicians to the city by prescribing green spaces as necessary to the health and well-being of the city and its citizens.

Haw’s evocative image ignored the longer history of the parks movement in favour of political capital. As Chris Waters has made clear in his essay ‘Progressives, Puritans and the Cultural Politics of the Council, 1889-1914’,[2] earlier work creating public parks in London had been carried out in the nineteenth century by the Metropolitan Board of Works (as a governing body) along with philanthropic societies such as the National Health Society, the Kyrle Society, the Commons Preservation Society, and the Metropolitan Public Gardens & Playgrounds Association[3]. However, this quotation clearly illustrates the perceived relationship between parks and the idea of the healthy city – something which would be expressed by Dr Benjamin Ward Richardson in his description of the utopian city for health, Hygeia, and go on to influence the founder of the British garden city movement, Ebenezer Howard.

The public parks movement developed through the nineteenth century in tandem with the rapid growth of urban centres. One early proponent for parks in London was the medical practitioner, William Farr. In 1839 he argued that ‘the mortality of cities in England and Wales is high, but it may be immeasurably reduced. A good, general system of sewers; the intersection of the dense, crowded districts of the metropolis by a few spacious streets; and a park in the east end of London would probably diminish the annual deaths by several thousands, prevent many years of sickness, and add several years to the lives of the entire population’.[4] Here the park is viewed as an important public health measure to rank alongside a system of sewers. The medical understanding underpinning this idea was the miasmatic concept of disease causation. Felix Driver’s succinct description of this theory describes how ‘miasmas were said to be invisible atmospheric substances generated, first by the putrefaction of organic matter, and secondly, by the human body in the course of daily living’.[5] So parks in this context could dilute the dangerous atmosphere by creating cleaner, healthier air.

Farr went on to suggest that the improvement of conditions in the East End would not just affect the poor and reduce the poor-rates, but that ‘all classes of the community are directly interested in their adoption, for the epidemics, whether influenza, typhus, or cholera, small-pox, scarlatina, or measles, which arise in the east end of the town, do not stay there; they travel to the west end, and prove fatal in wide streets and squares.’[6] This position could be seen as a direct consequence of his understanding of disease causation by miasmas, but also perhaps a direct appeal to those who could use their influence and money to change conditions in the East End; i.e. the richer classes of the West End. Farr was successful in his campaign, and the resultant urban green space is still thriving in the form of Victoria Park, opened in 1845.


1 Pagoda

Pagoda in Victoria Park, London


The idea of gardens and parks as features of a healthy town were also taken up by Benjamin Ward Richardson and expressed in his utopian city vision, Hygeia, published in 1876. Within this utopian city, based on what Richardson perceived to be the latest scientific principles (like Farr he was also a miasmatist), public gardens and green open spaces were given a fundamentally important role. Richardson describes how the

           acreage of our model city allows room for three wide main streets or boulevards, […] They are planted on each side of the pathways with trees, and in many places with shrubs and evergreens. All the interspaces between the backs of houses are gardens. The churches, hospitals, theaters, banks, lecture-rooms, and other public buildings, as well as some private buildings such as warehouses and stables, stand alone, forming parts of streets, and occupying the position of several houses. They are surrounded with garden space, and add not only to the beauty but to the healthiness of the city.[7]

This is key to thinking about the role of parks and gardens in the Victorian urban setting where beauty and health go hand in hand. In 1865, the writer and art critic, John Ruskin suggested that cities should contain ‘clean and busy streets within, and the open country without, with a belt of beautiful garden and orchard round the walls, so that from any part of the city perfectly fresh air and grass, and sight of far horizon, might be reachable in a few minutes’ walk.’[8] The environment was seen as integral to a healthy life, and gardens and parks were viewed as spaces that could both prevent disease and have a therapeutic function. The latter can be seen in the widespread creation of gardens attached to both hospitals and psychiatric asylums in Britain during this period.

Healthy air is not the only argument given by medical practitioners for the inclusion of green spaces. In Edwin Chadwick’s 1842 report on the health of towns, those giving evidence on the importance of developing public open spaces presented what could be described as essentially moral reasons rather than pragmatic arguments related to the importance of fresh air. One such instance was the evidence given by the committee of physicians and surgeons in Birmingham. They stated that ‘there are no public walks in or near this town; no places where the working-people can resort for recreation. The consequence is that they frequent the ale-houses and skittle alleys for amusement.’[9] In their submission the public walks are clearly seen as a means of distracting people from immoral behavior and alcohol consumption in particular.

Farr also expressed a moral as well as a medical component to his arguments in favour of parks and public walks. In his 1841 letter to the Registrar-General, he wrote ‘that suicide is most common in unhealthy towns – and that the influence of medicine on the mind, and on the unstable ungovernable impulses which are often the harbingers of suicide – is incontestable.’ His solution to this problem included improvements in the ventilation of artisan workshops and increased cleanliness. He also argued that ‘the new parks and public walks will afford the artisan an opportunity of refreshing his exhausted limbs and respiring the fresh air; and the health and temper of the sedentary workman may be much ameliorated by affording facilities in towns for athletic exercises and simple games out of doors, which, while they bring the muscles into play, unbend, excite, and exhilarate the mind. Moral causes, and the regulation of the mind, have perhaps more influence on the educated classes; but all must benefit from out-door exercise.’[10]

The moral arguments often related to the consumption of alcohol and participation in less edifying forms of entertainment by the working classes. The 1833 Select Committee on Public Walks reported that, ‘some Open Spaces reserved for the amusement (under due regulations to preserve order) of the humbler classes, would assist to wean them from low and debasing pleasures. Great complaint is made of drinking-houses, dog fights, and boxing matches, yet, unless some opportunity for other recreation is afforded to workmen, they are driven to such pursuits.’[11]


2 Drinking Fountain

Drinking Fountain in the Victoria Embankment Gardens, London, dedicated to Lady Henry Somerset, President of the National British Women’s Temperance Association.


Similarly Richardson’s Hygeia was to be a dry city devoid of public houses or shops selling liquor. He believed that one of the central advantages of this would be a considerable reduction in cases of insanity. He wrote that ‘in a city from which that grand source of wild mirth, hopeless sorrow and confirmed madness, alcohol, has been expelled, it could hardly be expected that much insanity would be found’.[12] This approach to temperance was followed in the model settlements of Bournville (established in 1879), Port Sunlight (1888) and Letchworth Garden City (1903).

Ebenezer Howard wrote an unpublished paper in around 1890 entitled ‘A Healthy City and How to Build It’. Consciously developing Richardson’s earlier utopian model, Howard bemoaned the fact that there is ‘no town in England which has been scientifically planned and organised with a view to the health, the happiness and the well being of the people.’[13] Howard saw green spaces as an integral part of this scientifically-planned and healthy city. This initial concept would eventually culminate in his development of the garden city. By 1910, medical practitioner, David Muthu, was writing that ‘it has been shown by the open-air, the garden city, and other movements, that fresh air and sunlight, beautiful and healthy surroundings, are essential for the sound development of body and mind, and for the growth of child-life… If men and women are to grow physically and morally strong, and derive pleasure and inspiration from their environment, they must have healthy homes and aesthetic surroundings’.[14] Here we see the coalescing of those earlier notions of physical and moral health, which can be achieved through immersion in a healthy and aesthetically pleasing environment.

Three years before Haw described how the creation of parks in London had rescued the ailing metropolitan body, Letchworth was built from scratch as a city where gardens and parks were an integral part of the design.


3 Letchworth Poster

Letchworth Poster © First Garden City Heritage Museum

The garden city movement can therefore be seen as a culmination of the medical and social ideals that were expressed by various individuals, including medical practitioners, during the nineteenth century. As we revisit the garden city as a potential way of dealing with the current house-building crisis in Britain,[15] it is perhaps timely to re-frame the debate using Richardson’s and Howard’s ideal of a city for health. Twenty-first century concepts of health and disease are obviously very different, but the question of what constitutes a healthy environment, and how we relate to it on a daily basis, is perhaps more crucial than ever.

Clare Hickman is currently a Wellcome funded Medical History & Humanities postdoctoral Fellow at Kings College London and author of Therapeutic Landscapes: A History of English Hospital Gardens Since 1800 (Manchester University Press, June 2013). Her article “The Picturesque at Brislington House, Bristol: The Role of Landscape in Relation to the Treatment of Mental Illness in the Early Nineteenth-Century Asylum” won the first Garden History Society Essay Prize in 2005.



[1] George Haw (1907), ‘The Daily News’ Lantern Lecture, quoted in Andrew Saint, (ed.) Politics & People of London: London County Council, 1889-1965 (London: Bloomsbury, 1989), p.52.

[2] This is also in Saint, Ibid.

[3] Key articles on these groups and the background to the parks movement include Hazel Conway, People’s parks: The design and development of Victorian Parks in Britain (Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1991); Felix Driver, ‘Moral geographies: Social science and the urban environment in mid-nineteenth century England.’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers: New Series, (1988) 13(3), 275–287; Martin Gaskell, ‘Gardens for the working class: Victorian practical pleasure’. Victorian Studies, (1980), 23(4), 479–501; Clare Hickman, ‘An exploration of the National Health Society and its influence on the movement for urban green spaces in late-nineteenth century London’, Landscape and Urban Planning, (2013), Vol. 118 112-119; Karen Jones & John Wills, The invention of the park: From the Garden of Eden to Disney’s Magic Kingdom. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005); Henry Malchow, ‘Public gardens and social action in late Victorian London’, Victorian Studies (1985), 29(1), 97–124. Peter Thorsheim, ‘The corpse in the garden: Burial, health, and the environment in nineteenth-century London’ Environmental History, (2011), 16(1), 38–68.

[4] William Farr, ‘Letter to the Registrar-General, 6 May, 1839’ in First Annual Report of the

Registrar-General of Births, Deaths, and Marriages in England (London, 1839), p.113.

[5] Driver, ‘Moral Geographies’, p.3

[6] Farr, 1839, p. 113.

[7] Benjamin Ward Richardson, Hygeia: A City of Health (London, 1876), p.27.

[8] John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies (London, 1904), p.199.

[9] Edwin Chadwick, Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Poor of Great Britain, ed. M. W. Flinn (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1965), p. 336.

[10] William Farr, ‘Letter to the Registrar-General’ in Third Annual Report of the Registrar-General

of Births, Deaths, and Marriages in England (London, 1841), p.82.

[11] Report from the Select Committee on Public Walks, 27 June 1833, p. 8

[12] Richardson, p.38.

[13] Ebenezer Howard, Undated carbon copy of article or lecture, c.1890, ‘A City for Health and How to Build It’, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (DE/Ho/F1/5). According to Robert Beevers, Howard sent a copy of this essay to Richardson but did not receive a reply: Robert Beevers, The Garden City Utopia: A Critical Biography of Ebenezer Howard (Abingdon, 2002), p. 30.

[14] David Chowri Muthu, Pulmonary Tuberculosis and Sanatorium Treatment: A Record of 10 Years’ Observation and Work in Open-air Sanatoria (London: Balliere, Tindall and Cox, 1910), p.186.

[15] See the Wolfson Economics Prize, 2014:

One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Investigación en Salud Ambiental y Ecotoxicología and commented:
    Otra interesante visión de cómo están vinculadas la Salud Ambiental y la Biodiversidad que nos rodea.


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