Life

Drugs, Raves and Human Waste: How Public Parks Became a Lockdown Battleground

From east London to Sheffield, fights between locals and "outsiders" over neighbourhood parks have reached new heights during the pandemic.
03 July 2020, 10:59am
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Photo: Emily Bowler

As Effy went on her Monday run through Lewisham's Telegraph Hill Park, she noticed that the area, in her words, overwhelmingly "stunk of piss". Effy, 25, is just one of many Telegraph Hill locals to have taken to their local Facebook group to air concerns about the state of their beloved park. Some detail how long it took them to pick up litter from the night before. Others say that broken glass and human waste make it impossible to safely walk their dogs.

"I love the park and the area, but it just stinks now, and people have been shitting in the bushes," Effy explains over the phone. "Generally, I don't have a problem with people going out to the park. It's just [they were there until] really late, and because it was hot you had to have the windows open. They had a sound system there on Monday and Tuesday last week, which was going on until 1 or 2AM."

During the UK-wide lockdown, public parks have become more important than ever. According to the Office of National Statistics, one in eight British households don't have access to a private garden, so many have become reliant on these spaces to escape the confines of their homes. But parks like Telegraph Hill have become a point of contention due to "anti-social" behaviour. As pubs and bars re-open this weekend – on a day dubbed "Super Saturday" – Royal Parks director, Tom Jarvis, issued a plea for park-goers to "respect our beautiful green spaces".

"As a resident, I've lost what I was using as my garden by people coming from out of the area to use it as a venue," says Effy. "When that rave got shut down, it was just queues of Ubers for a couple of hours, beeping. Locals have been waiting for ages to go and play tennis with their kids, but because the park is becoming more and more of a party, it's putting back the date to when we can use local facilities."

While many parks across London have seen increases in usage, rubbish and noise disruptions, Telegraph Hill's impressive views across the city and proximity to a high number of Houses of Multiple Occupancies (HMOs) with no gardens make it an epicentre of the park beef. The site has also seen illegal gatherings, including the rave that kept Effy awake all night. On the 19th of June, police were called to Telegraph Hill to disperse a gathering of people using a sound system. According to the Metropolitan Police, while dispersing the crowd of people a bottle was thrown from the crowd and hit an officer on the head (the officer was taken to hospital but his injuries were deemed not life-threatening). No arrests were made.

The great park debate isn't just a London issue. Open spaces in cities across the UK have been facing the same problems – from littering to open drug usage – meaning debates have raged between locals from Brighton to Glasgow.

"Throughout the day, typically there are families, old people are going for a walk – it's a really nice park area," says Jack Levi, a 23-year-old Sheffield resident and regular user of Endcliffe Park. "When it's really sunny outside, a lot of young people tend to go to the park, and it gets absolutely heaving full because it's close to lots of student areas in Sheffield. There have been lots of people openly doing drugs, sniffing, doing NOS, smoking weed, and lots of people shotting [drugs] outside the park."

"It's ridiculous, really," he adds. "I don't understand why people can't pick up their rubbish or put it in the bin or take it home."

Just like in Telegraph Hill Park, this situation has caused disagreements in the local community, with BBC presenter Dan Walker angrily tweeting a photo of litter left in Endcliffe Park and the local council upping its police presence there. Given the increased rubbish and drug usage, does Levi think it should be closed off entirely?

"No, because we are limited in space, and it's a really good park," he says. "There's no reason to shut it down because there's rubbish. People just need to be more aware. It's a bit of a lifeline for a lot of people who live and work in the inner city."

If closures aren't the answer, what is? It's a surprisingly controversial question. More bins, maybe, or as Dazed editor Anna Cafolla suggested in a tweet, councils could take advantage of the surplus of festival portaloos to solve the piss problem.

This simple suggestion about enhancing public facilities became the lighting rod for a pandemic culture war, plotting young against old, parent against non-parent, park lover against park disrespecter. "No, I don't want my council (Hackney) to spend more on rubbish clearance and festival toilets at London Fields," wrote one angry Twitter user. Another was so outraged that she tagged Cafolla's employers. Others suggested that, actually, lots of people might benefit from more toilets, such as children or people who are homeless, disabled or pregnant (Hackney Council has since sought a temporary drinking ban on London Fields park).

Lewisham Council, which looks after Telegraph Hill park, made the decision to close the park until 9PM for the week running up to Super Saturday, after pressure from locals to close it fully. Local councillor Sophie McGeevor told VICE: "We have no intention of closing any of Lewisham's parks, but reports of overcrowding, anti-social behaviour and littering are shocking, and we are calling on everyone to behave responsibly."

She adds: "We are also working closely with local police, who patrol regularly. We have introduced additional rubbish collections, but implore people to take their rubbish home and recycle it. If we spend limited budgets collecting rubbish there will be less funds for playgrounds, trees and parks maintenance."

What does Effy think of the closure? "It's a bit futile to lock the park at the weekend," she says. "They're only shutting one gate anyway, and people just go around [to the other gate] or climb over it."

Despite the warnings about Super Saturday, Effy remains confident that her own park will return to how it was before lockdown. "We're a really tight community, we have quite cute little community things sometimes – they have the Telegraph Hill 'Disco in Furlough' dance hour on Thursdays. So people understand the need to have a chat, socialise and go for a couple of beers. I think it will all be fine and calm down as restaurants and pubs open up again."

And, she adds hopefully, "If we have two weeks of shit weather, that will probably wash away all the human waste."

@rubyJLL / @nanasbaah