They were once referred to as the “lungs of Leeds”, the perfect place for the mixing of different social classes and the venue for everything from political hustings to a visit from Queen Victoria.
Now a major research project needs the public’s help to find out what the city’s green spaces mean to those who use them - and is looking to the past to help secure them for the future, at one of the most “challenging” times they have faced.
Historians and social researchers at the University of Leeds are exploring the role of the 60-plus parks in the city, many of them purchased for public use in the Victorian era, and comparing their use today with that in the 19th and 20th centuries.
From Golden Acre and Gotts to Roundhay, Rothwell and Woodhouse Moor, the city’s parks have played a varied role in the social history in the city, from hosting religious and royal processions in the VIctorian era, major concerts in the 1980s starring the likes of Michael Jackson, and allowing hundreds of runners to take part in free Parkruns today.
University of Leeds historian Dr David Churchill, a lecturer in the School of Law, said many of the public parks we have today were bought by the council in Victorian times when they were deemed as vital for public health due to their abundance of fresh air.
“In fact, parks were referred to as the ‘lungs of Leeds’, or as ‘ventilators’ of the city,” he said. “They also served as places where different social classes could meet and spend time with each other.
“There was a fear at that time that the classes were becoming more distant as the wealthy retreated to the suburbs.
“Councillors hoped that parks would counteract this, providing a space in which the working classes could mix with the better off, and where the poorer inhabitants could learn to emulate the polite manners of the middle classes.
“Many of the public health arguments behind the parks are still relevant today.”
The researchers, who include academics from the University of Bradford, have been delving into the past for the two-year project since last autumn, and some of the information already unearthed about the parks gives a fresh perspective about their role in the past.
“Roundhay Park, for example, cost a huge amount of money to purchase in 1871 - £139,000, “ Dr Churchill said. “For the official opening the following year, by Prince Arthur, an estimated 120,000 people attended, something in the region of a quarter or a third of the population of the city.
“Similarly, great crowds attended when Queen Victoria visited Woodhouse Moor for a procession in 1858.”
Today, use of the city’s parks appears to be linked to the life cycle, with peaks of use when you have young children or grandchildren; or ranging from those who live nearby simply using the parks as shortcuts to spending two or three hours at a time exercising in the parks.
The research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and is being run in partnership with the Leeds City Council Parks and Countryside team, and the findings will be presented to the council to help shape recreation policy in the future.
Dr Churchill added: “This project is taking place at a particularly challenging time for parks, in terms of demands on budgets and space. We need to think creatively about how they are governed to ensure sustainable uses for them are found.”
Leeds Council’s executive member for the environment and sustainability, Coun Lucinda Yeadon said: “This research will be a very useful guide to us as we move forward with our future work in the city’s parks.”
Researchers need your help to discover the relationship people have with parks today.
They are appealing for photographs from the Victorian era to the present day to fill in gaps in the written record and create a digital archive of park pictures.
They are also asking residents to share their views of local parks through an online survey, and are offering the chance to win a £100 gift voucher.
To share your views in the survey, go to https://leeds.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/leedsparkssurvey and to submit your park photos, visit: https://leedsparksproject.wordpress.com/