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Urban ecosystems
Woodland on Hampstead Heath
Woodland on Hampstead Heath, London


There were few trees in mediaeval towns but people living in these areas were only a short distance from the countryside and to the surrounding woodlands and open air. With the coming of the industrial revolution and rapid urban expansion however, areas of private parkland once part of big rural estates, woodland and common land became swallowed up. Much of this land was rapidly built on to provide housing for the growing population and more room for industrial development.

Hampstead Heath (photograph right) in north London is a good example. It partly originated from the common lands of the manor of Hampstead, while much of the rest was the parkland and farmland of Kenwood House. After a long campaign to prevent the Heath being built on the Hampstead Heath Society was formed in 1897 to protect and conserve it for public enjoyments.

Pollarded tree

Pollarded tree in Epping Forest

In woodland which was once part of the countryside trees can still sometimes be found showing signs of past rural use.

These ancient trees in Epping Forest (photograph left) have several thick branches all arising from the same level on the trunk. In the past these branches were trimmed close to the trunk to make them produce a thick crop of young straight branches - a technique known as pollarding.

The development of urban parks

It was also the Victorians who came up with idea of the more formal urban park. The plan was to have a pleasant green space fringed with desirable houses which would sell at a high price to the wealthy giving the investors a good return for their money. These parks however would also be close enough for the 'labouring masses' to enjoy in their leisure time. The Victorians had a great intererest in treees and many new species were introduced into these parks and even the relatively small suburban gardens contained exotic trees and shrubs. Many of the Victorian parks and squares are still intact today providing a space in which trees and small areas of woodland can survive.

In London other important areas for trees are provided by Royal Parks. These were originally areas owned by the monarchy and used primarily for hunting by the Royal family. Eight parks covering 5,500 acres have now become public parks.

The garden cemetery

Abney Park cemetery

Abney Park Cemetery, London

Rapid population growth in large cities also led to a lack of burial space. Churchyards were filling up and further burials prohibited. In the early 1800s inspired by 'garden burial movement' private entrepreneurs started to create private landscaped burial parks independent of the church. In 1832 parliament passed a bill encouraging the development of a ring of seven private cemeteries around London. These cemeteries not only increased burial spaces but proved popular as areas for people to walk or drive their carriages in. In the 20th century many of these cemeteries have suffered neglect and today contain a rich exotic mixture of mature trees and shrubs.

Whilst many cities today have significant numbers of trees and areas of woodland some of these remain very formal. Grass beneath the trees is mown, dead leaves are swept up and dead wood is removed decreasing the potential biodiversity (the richness of species which live there). In these densely populated urban areas there may always be some conflict between the management for human recreation and management more suitable for wildlife.

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