“Victoria is my best friend,” Marisa, 23, says of the park where she does her daily run. A sentiment clearly echoed by a lot of people on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in week 5 of quarantine. Hundreds of people walk in sets of two in the sun dappled park, while signs all over the park remind people about the 2 metre distance and the correct places to enter and exit. Surprising as the amount of people may be, Victoria Park has become a hallowed place of refuge during this scary and uncertain time.
With London in lockdown, the government has made sure that parks remain open for exercise with the advice on the gov.uk website saying that “exercise is still important for people’s physical and mental wellbeing, so… people can leave their homes for exercise once a day.” Since there has been nice weather during the first few weeks of quarantine, people’s first instinct has been to get outside. This protection of green space has ensured that the mental health of citizens in lockdown will not deteriorate quite as much. Even the World Health Organization confirms that access to green spaces can “reduce health inequalities, improve well-being, and aid in treatment of mental illness… physical activity in a natural environment can help remedy mild depression and reduce physiological stress indicators.” In a time of such widespread confusion, fear, and stress, access to green spaces can be exceptionally helpful for maintaining good mental health. Speaking to local residents of Victoria Park, almost all of them mentioned the park as a reprieve or escape from their current situation as part of the reason they still go to the park. Jay, 27, tells me that he and one of his flatmates are still going because they “don’t have any outdoor space at our flat so the park is our escape.” Additionally, Marisa said the park acts as, “a bit of a reprieve to get out in nature, since I don’t have a yard I like to use it as a way to get fresh air and sun.”
Though, as one of the most visited parks in London, Victoria Park was one of the earliest parks to shut down. Tower Hamlets Council announced on March 25th, only two days after the U.K. government announced the lockdown, that they would be shutting the park down until further notice due to the amount of people violating social distancing rules. However, as the biggest council run open space in Greater London, it’s no surprise that the park being closed put strain on the other parks nearby. It gains about 12 million visitors each year according to the Tower Hamlets Council website. Marisa told me that while Victoria Park was closed, she went to Hackney Downs and London Fields, but “since they’re smaller, it was harder to get a good run in.”
After two weeks of the park being shut, on April 9th they made the decision to reopen it on the 11th, albeit with some restrictions. According to the signs on the fences, their website, and social media they’ve “reduced opening hours from 8am to 4pm on the east side of the park, and 8.30am to 4pm/4.30pm on the west side,” have banned “adult cycling,” “static exercises such as yoga, pilates, general fitness training and exercises that can be done at home are not allowed,” along with other measures that mean the park is operating simply as a green space for people to pass through. Tower Hamlets Council reopened the park after protestations from local families. Protester Richard Bingley told The Hackney Gazette, “we’re forced to walk dogs, jog, and cycle into more compressed space with the park being closed.” Which generally, was true while the park was closed. During one of my daily walks, I noticed that canal walkways were full of people and the other parks nearby had considerably more people in them than they do now that Victoria Park is open once again. Jay told me that when the park was closed, “We walked around the perimeter of the park instead. Therefore coming in closer contact with people than when we were inside of the park!”
While some people were protesting the park closing, others are now frustrated that it’s reopened. Felix*, 27, has said that he stays home because he doesn’t want to live with the idea that he possibly killed someone. “I feel like, for my mental health, it’s easier to live in my house,” he tells me. Prior to lockdown, Felix often went for a run in the park, but now refrains for the safety of himself and others. Felix is in the minority though, since most have done the opposite, people who had rarely gone for exercise in the park prior to the pandemic, now find it a vital part of their quarantine routine. Victoria Park has solidified itself as a key part of most East Londoners’ lives, reenforcing itself as The People’s Park.
Tower Hamlets Council have reopened the park “to support the mental health and wellbeing of residents during this time,” but even so, the usually idyllic park is teeming with reminders of the current pandemic. For some people, this is a good thing, Marisa told me, “the reality is that there is a pandemic and it’s dangerous when people forget the severity of what’s happening.” Signs at every junction, people in high-vis vests patrolling and moving people on if they’ve been in one place for too long, and a loudspeaker announcing the new measures every ten minutes that isn’t quite loud enough to understand unless you’re right next to it, are all part of what Tower Hamlets Council have done to enforce the new measures. Now, what is acting as a reprieve for a large number of people, is also a flagrant reminder that things aren’t normal. Things won’t be normal for quite some time though, so at least for now, we can continue to enjoy Victoria Park and its overflowing spring beauty.
*name changed for privacy