What was the open space movement?

Castlerigg Stone Circle in frost at dawn

From the later nineteenth-century, open space campaigners in England and Wales sought to preserve open space for recreation.

Threat

Before the industrial revolution most English and Welsh people lived in the country surrounded by green space. By 1851 most of them lived in towns and had little access to open space. Industrial growth and urban sprawl threatened the countryside.

Preservation and accessibility

Open space campaigners focused on preserving open land and making it accessible – unlike in some other countries where preserving inaccessible wilderness was the priority. 

Early campaigns focused on common land near London. Later the focus shifted to remoter places such as the Lake District.

Motivations 

Some campaigners were inspired by the beauty of nature, while others hoped that recreation in nature would improve people’s health or even morals. Radical campaigners wanted to stop the rich stealing open land from the poor, and conservative campaigners wanted to preserve traditional ways of life. 

Supporting the cause

Campaigners fought in the courts and parliament. They raised money to buy land and persuaded landowners to allow the public onto land such as urban churchyards or royal parks. They removed illegal fences round commons and organised mass trespasses.

Finally, parliament passed laws protecting common land from the late nineteenth-century onwards. Green belts around cities and National Parks were established from the 1940s, and rights of access to private open space in the year 2000.

Legacy

The National Trust’s distinct contribution to the open space movement is to manage its land in the public interest.  It also opposes damaging developments and even ran a mass campaign in 2011 to oppose the weakening of the planning controls which protect open spaces.

A continuing battle

Many open spaces in town and countryside now enjoy protection, but controversy continues.  Should open spaces be used for vitally needed housing or transport links? Do visitors threaten the peace and beauty of open spaces? Do the animals and plants which live in open spaces have rights which deserve protection?  Campaigning on these and other open space questions looks set to continue for many years to come.

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