I must be in the wrong place. According to the map, I should be on the crest of a hill, its bunched contour lines suggesting a steep drop. It doesn’t match the plain road of terraced housing that I am wandering through. Plus, for a walk about trees, it doesn’t seem particularly leafy.
To my surprise, the road ends at a sudden panorama. The maze of Victorian cottages stops abruptly at a wide view of three valleys and, beyond it, the green spread of the Peak District in the distance. Thousands of trees. Sheffield is lucky to be the country’s only city with a national park inside its boundaries.
The UK’s first national park has been a major influence on its urban neighbour. The park prevented the city from expanding westwards, a physical impact I can see from my vantage point: the green fields change suddenly into the suburbs of Hillsborough and Stannington. The park butts right up to the city and the wildness of the Peak District seems to have rubbed off on the city itself. There are 80 public parks and 650 green spaces in the area, and Sheffield’s two million trees means it has more per person than any other UK city. Lately, however, the city’s greenery is under increasing threat.
Cutting back through the terraces, the first signs of the threat begin to appear. Posters stuck to residents’ windows read ‘Save Western’s Trees’, increasing in frequency as I get to Western Road itself. From the top of the road, I can see what the fuss is about. These trees aren’t like most of the wavy little saplings that line residential pavements – they are taller than the houses behind them, with voluminous canopies tangled together over the road. Taking a closer look at one, its roots have created a cracked bulge of tarmac, encasing the lower trunk like a socket to a limb. At eye-level, there is a ribbon and a paper poppy tied around its middle. Clearly, the trees have historical significance.
They were planted in 1919, representing the lives of former pupils of the nearby Westways School who were killed during the First World War. The ribbons and poppies are an act of protest against the local authority’s plan to fell a number of them. According to the council, 23 trees need to be cut down as part of a road improvement plan carried out by private contractor, Amey. The controversial plan has already brought down 4,000 city trees, including some on nearby Rustling Road. In a divisive move last November, residents were roused from their beds at 5am and told to move their cars to allow the felling to continue. Protestors were arrested and the story became national news.
‘The greenness of Sheffield is something we value immensely,’ says Jennifer Saul, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield and campaigner for the city’s trees. ‘Many of us moved to Sheffield because we fell in love with this green city.’
Amey is contracted to replace many of the trees, however, some locals feel the replacements will not have as much environmental benefit as mature ones. ‘Tiny, new trees cannot legitimately be considered as being anything like a replacement,’ says Saul. ‘Amey is felling perfectly healthy trees against the judgment of an Independent Tree Panel and against citizens’ wishes. The people of Sheffield love their trees, but they also love their democracy, and we’re fighting for both of these.’
THE PEOPLE’S PARKS
This isn’t the first time Sheffielders have been up in arms about greenery and clean air. The Discovering Britain trail takes me further down into the valley of the city, to the first of a series of parks that circle its western edge. From above, they appear as a string of green islands around the city centre. In the late 19th century the city would have been a hub of narrow roads, factories, and cramped housing, with a skyline of redbrick chimneys, their definition blurred with haze. The area’s population, drawn in by the steel industry, grew exponentially in the 1800s, from just 60,000 in 1801 to 451,000 one hundred years later. Employment boomed, but life expectancy was low.
As I walk through Western Park, it is hard to imagine that unhealthy history. Today, these five hectares of nature are still an escape from the streets wrung around it. What’s more, it all feels familiar – the close avenues of trees, the bandstand, neat and ordered flower displays – all hallmarks of the Victorian parks that bubbled up across the country in the 1800s. Some had an educational edge, such as the botanical glasshouses in Sheffield Botanical Gardens, or a leisure aspect, such as the bowling green in Crookesmoor Park and the boating lake of Endcliffe Park. Most importantly however, they addressed a need for fresh air, an escape from noxious fumes and crowded working class housing.
Continuing a route of Sheffield park-hopping, I come to the glass domes of the 7.6-hectare Botanical Gardens which was created by pooling funds from members of the public who were concerned there wasn’t enough open space for cramped residents. At first, the gardens were only open to Botanical Society members. However, in the 1890s, they were purchased by the Town Trust and added to Sheffield’s public acreage.
Fast-forward to the end of the 20th century, and many of Sheffield’s parks were in trouble. During the height of the 1980s’ recession, Whitehall slashed public park budgets all over the country, allocating them less money and fewer staff. The dire state of Sheffield’s inner city parks in the early 1990s spurred the Sheffield Parks Regeneration Strategy, organised by the Wildlife Trust and the City Council, with funds raised from Heritage Lottery Grants, volunteer groups, and private sponsorship.
Locals are concerned that Sheffield’s green spaces are once again under threat from budget cuts. I reach Endcliffe Park, the last on my tour. It has a wilder character than the other parks I have seen today; the river running through it has small rapids and waterfalls that belie its inner city location. In February, MP for Sheffield South East, Clive Betts, urged that places such as Endcliffe ‘are at a tipping point’ thanks to management cuts as high as 97 per cent in some parts of the country. ‘If we are to prevent a period of decline with potentially severe consequences then action must be taken,’ he stated.
With so many public parks in England, we have the luxury of overlooking them. It’s easy to forget that they are closed down far more often than they are created; that a tree, growing for 100 years, can be brought down in minutes. Although the days of unchecked Victorian pollution are over, each year urban centres face further rises in emissions. I’m leaving persuaded that history’s public spaces will play a crucial part in tackling today’s health issues. In Sheffield, the fight to protect them continues.
This was published in the April 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.