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Octavia Hill’s vision for the Green Belt

Clare Armstrong
By Clare Armstrong

It was the social reformer Octavia Hill who first coined the term ‘Green Belt’ in 1875, as part of her unsuccessful campaign to purchase Swiss Cottage Fields to save it from development.

It is not inconceivable that London could have had a Green Belt in the late nineteenth century, and it is useful to speculate what would have been the effect if one had been declared then.

The CPRE campaign to stop urban sprawl and low-density development outside city boundaries – which relies on cars and increases energy use, loss of precious countryside, and the destruction of agricultural land and wildlife habitat – aligns perfectly with what Octavia would be campaigning for in 2023, along with the importance of creating freely accessible green spaces wherever possible for city-dwellers to enjoy:

'The right of access to beauty and nature is an essential element towards the wellbeing of every man, woman and child.'
Octavia Hill
Octavia Hill coined the term ‘Green Belt’ in 1875 | Clare Armstrong

Octavia was eager to lend weight to the Commons Preservation Society’s efforts to safeguard open space around London, in the face of its seemingly unchecked expansion. She spoke of the danger of reproducing inner London’s problems in the outer suburbs.  In a paper of 1888, she calibrated the imbalance between open space to the west and that to the east of London, and used her evidence to argue for rapid adjustment, as well as what might be regarded as a prototype green belt:

'Might it not also be possible to secure sometimes a green belt to a road newly cut across the country, plant it with trees, and make of it a walking and riding way? This would be the best investment possible for the future of London walkers.'
Octavia Hill

Octavia Hill’s belief in the importance of access to nature for human wellbeing, and the need to stop the destruction of the natural landscape, is even more relevant today.  It was her passion for preserving places of historic interest or natural beauty that left a lasting precedent, helping to protect amongst others Wimbledon Common, Wandsworth Common, Hampstead Heath, Parliament Hill Fields and Epping Forest.

Her case for the need for everyone to be able to access ‘places to sit in, places to play in, places to stroll in, and places to spend a day in’ was outlined in her 1875 article ‘Space for the People’:

'We all need space; unless we have it we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently. Our lives in London are over-crowded, over-excited, over-strained. This is true of all classes; we all want quiet; we all want beauty for the re­freshment of our souls'
Octavia Hill

Octavia Hill is best remembered as a social reformer and as one of the co-founders of the National Trust, but her contribution to landscape preservation is equally important.  Her views and her vision remain extraordinarily relevant to CPRE London’s current campaign, and to everything that CPRE campaigns for across the rest of the country.

About the author

Clare Armstrong lives in Southwark and campaigns on public realm improvements and greening projects. She is a member of the Red Cross Garden Steering Group (which was one of Octavia’s most significant projects in London). She is also an active member of both the Southwark and London Living Streets groups, working towards a better walking environment for all. Clare is a descendant of Octavia Hill, who was her great-grandfather’s first cousin.

Walkers and cows in Bath Green Belt
Walkers in Bath Green Belt


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