Book Reviews, Landscape History, London, Public Realm

Book Review: The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan

August 3, 2012

This has been an exciting year for London as the city celebrated the Queen’s Jubilee and hosts the summer Olympics. Creating unparalleled opportunities to highlight history and culture within a framework of modern design and innovation both events have featured all that makes London unique, including its beloved public realm.

It is therefore fortunate that landscape architect and historian, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan ( has written The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town, a comprehensive survey of the political, social and environmental forces and complex mix of users and uses that created the urban form most distinctly aligned with London – the residential garden square.

Elegantly written and extensively illustrated, The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town traces the evolution of the iconic space from the 17th century to the present day, providing an unflinching evaluation of both its positive and negative attributes.  Despite a range of threats upon its integrity, from inadequate maintenance to traffic encroachments, the residential square has persevered as an enduring symbol of the city representing the “pride of London’s planning.”

Derived from the Italian piazza, the London garden square acquired a distinctly British character in the 18th century when greenery and a sense of enclosure were incorporated into its design.  The inclusion of landscaped open space as part of residential development was widely imitated and the integration of nature within an urban environment known as, “rus in urbe,” set a standard for urban development that remains relevant today.

Grosvenor Square: Image from London Parks & Gardens Trust

‘Square’ is used to describe rectangular open figures and their surrounding houses as well as crescents, circuses and polygons which possess “practically the same character.”  Although Longstaffe-Gowan’s primary focus is on squares designed as part of residential developments, information on London’s ceremonial squares is included, most notably when threatened with schemes that compromise their public nature. While his study extends to the edges of Greater London the geographic focus is on squares located within the inner city.

For the reader seeking information about a particular square be forewarned, The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town is not a “potted” history of individual spaces.  Instead the book explores common themes and issues throughout the past four centuries of time within a broad framework of scholarship.

Longstaffe-Gowan is no sentimentalist and presents an honest assessment of the competing political and social narratives that combined to make the square an important, often controversial, public space within the city.  The fortunes of London’s garden squares waxed and waned throughout time as has the debate over their ownership, management and maintenance.

Leicester Square 1874: Image from London Parks & Gardens Trust

One of many examples included is “The Battle of the Railings” a  campaign during the Second World War described as “not simply a question of supplying scrap metal for munitions….but a battle fought for democracy” at a time when the iron railings represented “an outdated system of social hierarchy.”

While efforts to safeguard open space throughout London became active in the late 19th century it was not until 1931 that The London Preservation Act was passed providing protection to 461 squares and enclosures. “The rock upon which all preservation of squares is built,” the Act,  while imperfect, was one of the first to provide protection to designed landscapes. The protection of London’s garden squares from privatization and inappropriate development, an issue that is also of concern in the US as cities deal with a lack of financial resources to maintain public open space, is ongoing amid development pressure and funding shortfalls.

As the president of the non-profit organization, London Parks & Gardens Trust, Longstaffe-Gowan has dedicated much of his career to preserving London’s Squares and making them accessible to the public. The Trust has recently launched the London Inventory of Historic Greenspaces online, which contains details, supported by photographs, plans and drawings, of 2,500 parks, gardens, commons, cemeteries and other historic spaces across Greater London.  For more information about the survey visit:

The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town succeeds on many levels. An impeccably researched and annotated work of scholarship the book is, at its core, an engrossing narrative describing London’s evolving attitudes regarding the value and importance of public open space.  The residential square, integral to the well-being of the community,  remains a “form that can be given new life at the end of the millennium” providing for ongoing exploration and reinvention.

The London Square: Gardens in the Midst of Town

by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan

(New Haven:Yale University Press, 2012)

This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, August 2012.

Copyright © 2012  Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

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  • Reply Vickie Lester August 5, 2012 at 12:14 am

    If I recall correctly, while these gardens are “public” many of them are keyed. As a young babysitter in London often parents would hand me keys to their neighborhood garden — it’s been a long time, I’ll have to check out the book and see how things have changed…Lovely site.

    • Reply Patrice Todisco August 6, 2012 at 2:35 pm

      You remember correctly, many of London’s garden squares are privately owned with limited access. You might want to look at the comprehensive inventory of open spaces available online through the London Parks & Gardens Trust. They provide information about the squares including accessibility. Thanks!

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