London’s Marble Arch Mound was a fiasco in a city losing so many green spaces – but pop-up parks can work

Ian Mell– Reader in Environmental & Landscape Planning, University of Manchester

Grassy hill with trees.
The Marble Arch Mound has been dubbed the “worst attraction” in London. PA Images/Alamy

The original plans for the temporary Marble Arch Mound in London depicted an inviting green space with thick vegetation and mature trees. The reality is far from that.

The sad-looking geometric hill has been criticised for featuring little other greenery than than the squares of wilting grass hanging to it. The views of Hyde Park and Oxford Street also leave much to be desired with obscured sight lines to other London landmarks. It is unsurprising then that people have also baulked at the £4.50-£8 entry fee, which is now being dropped after many visitors were refunded.

The poor design and construction have led the Mound to be labelled London’s “worst attraction”. Built to tempt shoppers back to Oxford Street, the Mound has ended up costing Westminster council £6 million. This is double the forecasted cost and has led to the resignation of the council’s deputy leader.

In its failure, the project undermines the Mayor of London’s strategic work to enhance the quantity and quality of green and open space across the metropolitan area. It is also comes at a time when green spaces and parks around the city (in Peckham, Bermondsey and Bromley) are under threat of being removed to make way for housing development.

Marble Arch Mound’s failure highlights a willingness by local councils to invest in green space if they promise to promote direct financial return while they decrease funds for existing parks, which are seen as economic burdens and low-money makers. And yet there are ways for cities to improve access to nature, play and community interaction with via investment in nature rather than focusing on tourist revenue.

Why this project in this location?

For those living in urban areas whose green spaces are under threat it might seem confusing why local councils would choose to fund tourist projects like the Mound when they are getting rid of permanent spaces that serve local communities in the long rather than short term.

Is it simply an economic choice, as it’s cheaper to sell assets and remove the costs of having to maintain them? Are local councils trying to raise long-term council and business tax revenue through increased property provision? Or do they view development as more worthy compared to the management of public parks?

Research in Liverpool has shown that local authorities are under significant pressures to meet budgetary demands meaning all these considerations are being made. In some cases, sales are deemed politically practical regardless of the problems associated with a lack of accessible parks and green space.

People sit on grass bank near Tower Bridge.
The pandemic heightened the importance of urban green spaces for people to thrive. Kamira/Shutterstock

However, the pandemic has reinforced the need for local councils, and society more generally, to consider its health, wellbeing, and the promotion of social interaction provided by the natural environment – especially in areas of low income or diverse ethnicity. Over the last 20 months, enhancement and maintenance of local parks has been critical to public health. Evidence from the Office for National Stastistics, Natural England and Public Health England provides an argument for more and better provision of green space in support of this view.

Working with pop-up parks in the future

Pop-up parks are not a bad idea. The use of pop-up forests and forest bathing pods in Liverpool generated excitement when they were used in the summer of 2019. Additional examples from the US and Australia also highlight the ways in which pop-up parks can add a vibrancy to urban areas.

However, these examples were well thought through and didn’t cost £6 million. They were more discreet in their scale and had more interactive elements to their designs that drew people in. The Marble Arch Mound went big and bold and is now viewed as a folly, much like the Garden Bridge, for failing to meet expectations.

London, though, has numerous examples of innovative partnerships developed between businesses, local councils and the environment sector that have brought underused and undervalued spaces back into use. For example, the Wild West End partnership champions biodiversity and green space provision in the same area as the Marble Arch Mound, but has delivered projects that have been seen as far more successful.

The partnership’s small park in Baker Street, built around an area of decking with planters containing silver birch trees and perennial plants, was created to improve air quality and biodiversity. It also serves as a spot for people to sit and host events in a busy area of the city. Two years since it opened in 2019 the space has had tangible environmental benefits, including welcoming many pollinators, and is loved by local residents, those employed in the area and visitors.

Likewise, environmental charity Thames 21, has worked extensively with partners to improve London’s waterways and engage people with the environment. They, and other organisations including Groundwork, have created great green spaces via volunteering and corporate social responsibility programmes that focus on getting people to engage directly with nature.

Westminster council purports that the temporary structure is part of their bid for a “greener, smarter, future, together”. Programmes like Wild West End, Thames 21 and Groundwork are actually achieving this vision with their green spaces, which focus on engaging the local community and improving wellbeing while striving to provide better green urban spaces that aid the local environment.

The ways in which these organisations have worked over a prolonged period in dedicated locations show that the provision of additional amenities such as play areas, sports pitches, or space to socialise can thrive compared to gimmicks or projects that prioritise economic development over ecology and community. They also highlight that a range of green and blue spaces including parks, street trees, open grassed areas and canals can meet local and city-wide health and recreation needs.

Pop-up projects like the Marble Arch Mound can become places that people cherish and important green additions that work with urban environments. However, if green spaces, short and long term, are community driven and have accessible urban nature at their heart, rather than economic concerns like the Marble Arch Mound, local communities and local councils can benefit.

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