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Every great city on the planet — at least any great city of the slightest antiquity — evolved as a walking city. While the lucky few may have had access to a horse or mule, miles were mostly covered on foot. We came to understand and navigate cities first and foremost as pedestrians needing to get around them. Later, the fashion for “promenading” encouraged citizens to move through the urban landscape for purely pleasurable purposes.
While walking may have been a necessity for getting around the narrow, malodorous streets of 15th-century Paris or Prague, by the early 18th century the idea of walking the city for pleasure became an established practice. London was the city that led the way — though its streets were no less malodorous.
Promenading — from the French se promener, meaning to go for a walk — became a fashionable activity in Georgian London as a way for men and women to see and be seen. It allowed the latest fashions to be shown off in an atmosphere of flirtatiousness and endless “peacocking”.
London offered the ideal places to promenade in the form of an abundance of pleasure gardens. These were commercial ventures, where in return for an entrance fee citizens could enjoy concerts, refreshments and a leisurely promenade. Pleasure gardens began to spring up across the city from the late-1600s, and by the end of the 18th century there were more than 100 of them.
Marylebone Gardens, between Marylebone High Street and what is now Harley Street, comprised an eight-acre plot with bowling greens, fruit trees and walks lined by clipped privet hedges. In Chelsea, Ranelagh Gardens featured an impressive rococo rotunda — the subject of a painting by Canaletto — a Chinese pavilion and a lake. Situated next door to the Royal Hospital grounds on the river Thames, Ranelagh Gardens now forms part of the site occupied each May by the Chelsea Flower Show.
Across the river were Vauxhall Gardens. First known as New Spring Gardens, the site covered eight acres of woodland glades, walkways and avenues. But there was more than just horticulture happening in the shrubbery: the gardens housed arbours where amorous encounters could take place out of site and uninterrupted.
In 1729, a local tradesman, Jonathan Tyers, took on the lease and set out to clean up the grubby image of the gardens and introduce a new moral compass to the entertainment on offer. With advice from his friend, the artist William Hogarth, Tyers created a series of buildings around an open piazza, where promenading and polite conversation could take place. Concerts were a regular feature, with notable composers such as George Frideric Handel debuting new work from the purpose-built bandstand. The far-flung, wilder reaches of Vauxhall Gardens remained home to less salubrious behaviour, but Tyers succeeded at least in part in nudging Georgian society towards more genteel entertainment.
Tyers would have appreciated the inclusivity and family-friendliness of the Italian tradition of la passeggiata. The evening stroll, or “little walk”, punctuated by stops for gelato, beer or wine, is as much about flirtation and showing off as the Georgian promenade. But in the Italian version babies are shown off just as much as a new hairstyle.
Rome’s main shopping street, Via del Corso, is a favoured route for la passeggiata, but the Pincian Hill above Piazza del Popolo offers a better landscape experience. The views across the city toward the Vatican are expansive, and spectacular at sunset. At the top of the steps from Piazza del Popolo are the gardens of Villa Borghese, the 80-hectare park that is the remains of Cardinal Borghese’s 17th-century gardens. La passeggiata from there to the top of the Spanish Steps, looking over the rooftops, is one of the most memorable ways to experience the Eternal City.
As city promenading experiences go, it is hard to beat the Concha promenade along the coast at San Sebastián/Donostia, in the Spanish Basque country. The last time I took to the promenade was a blustery January Sunday, but there were plenty of local people enjoying the brisk air. The route is along two beaches, Zurriola and Concha, that are separated by a headland into which the city projects. The walk takes in the modernist Kursaal centre, and the Concha promenade is decorated with the most beautifully ornate Belle Époque street lamps and iron railings. After the relatively benign conditions of Concha bay, for a few more minutes’ strolling you wind up at the modernist “Peine del Viento” (“comb of the wind”) sculpture installation, three striking works by Eduardo Chillada that seem to exist perpetually in the froth of thrashing waves, even on a still day.
Perhaps the most famous promenade landscape of all is the 4km Copacabana beach walk in Rio de Janeiro. Based on the traditional Portuguese pavement style, comprising innumerable black-and-white mosaic stones, it was re-designed by Roberto Burle Marx in 1970. The resulting enlarged wave pattern forms one side of the beach pavement, flanked by sand on one side and roadway on the other.
While Copacabana is almost shorthand for seaside cool, the Spanish resort of Benidorm has had a more chequered recent history. It may seem an unlikely place for cutting-edge seaside landscaping, but the Poniente beach promenade, designed by Carlos Ferrater, is just that. The 1,200-metre-long landscape consists of walls that curve in and out and project over the beach in a continuous, flowing waveform. The paths and walkways that meander along the top of the wall have been made in 22 colours, inset with shrub beds and feature palm trees. It is a powerful response to Benidorm’s unfortunate beach skyline, where high-rise blocks dominate almost right up to the sand, and does much to rebalance the intersection between the beach and buildings.
It was to the seaside that British promenading retreated, once the pleasure gardens had been put out of business by changing fashions, free public parks and Victorian society’s unwavering sense of moral righteousness. Visitors were encouraged to take the sea air for health reasons and, later, with the advent of rail travel and paid holidays, the seaside became a holiday destination for Britain’s workforce. Blackpool on the Lancashire coast was a favourite for workers in the north-west; Scarborough fulfilled the same role in Yorkshire. Margate, Clacton, Filey and Southend-on-Sea became holiday boomtowns.
Many of Britain’s seaside landscapes have declined since the advent of the package holiday. The promenade at Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex demonstrates what can be done to reinvigorate a faded seaside landscape, when imagination is backed up with appropriate funding. With the modernist masterpiece De La Warr Pavilion as a centrepiece, the promenade has been redesigned by HTA Design as a “linear parkland”. In place of labour-intensive Victorian bedding there are plantings of naturalistic perennials and grasses. Elements of the planting and hard landscape celebrate the seaside setting and fun features such as a water fountain play space keep children engaged.
The promenade may no longer have the social resonance it once had, but the idea of getting out and perambulating through an interesting and engaging urban landscape is as relevant as ever. The enduring appeal of promenades such as La Concha and Copacabana demonstrates the value of such places. The improvements to Benidorm’s Poniente beach and Bexhill’s seafront have influenced not only the quality of the landscape but the way people interact with them. Urban planners might do well to look to the promenade and how much value it can add to our lives.
Matthew Wilson is a landscape and garden designer and horticultural consultant
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