Although Regents Park is today a large open space surrounded by grand housing, it very nearly didn’t even exist.
The land to the north of London was farmland owned by Barking Abbey, and came into Royal ownership following the dissolution of the monasteries. Not being of much value, it was generally let out as farmland by the Crown until London started growing substantially in Georgian times.
A number of estates were developed leading northwards from Marylebone, and the government started looking at the Marylebone Park farm with fresh eyes.
A report, the First Report of the Commissioners of his Majesty’s Woods, Forests, and Land Revenues, published in 1812, looked at the development of Marylebone Park not as an urban park, but as a source of income for the government.
It was commercial real estate — and to be treated as such, despite the downside, of the time, of being a fair distance from Whitehall, and hence not that valuable as a plot of land.
This was in part the reason later for the construction of Regent Street and the general sweeping away of the narrow streets and slums of the area – to speed up traffic between posh houses and the Houses of Parliament.
A number of plans were put forward to develop the park commercially, and it was John Nash’s design — although never fully implemented — that won the day.
However, a rival plan, by Thomas Leverton and Thomas Chawner nearly did win, and we’d have a very different, in fact probably non-existent Regent Park today. What they proposed was essentially an extension in design of the existing Portland Estate, of grand terraces of buildings, over the Marylebone Park, so that the southern half of the land would be contiguous with the rest of the built-up area.
The plan suggested that about two-thirds of the estate could be sold off to developers in this way, with the remaining third left for the development of detached villas, and deriguour for the time, a military barracks.
The revenue from the leases was estimated at around £23,000 per year — about £1.6 million today, although as the leases were fairly short, averaging 60 years, the real income today would be vastly higher as rent increases would be built into the calculations.
It’s easy to speculate, but had the scheme gone ahead, it’s likely that Regent Park would not exist, being just part of the lands to the north of Oxford Street, lined with grand buildings since converted into offices, and a few modern intrusions.
The northern end which was intended to be sold off for villas in large gardens would probably have been redeveloped into denser housing as soon as the leases came up for renewal. Maybe a few large garden squares would remain, but otherwise, the area would be just long roads full of urban sprawl.
The Crown would be vastly richer, but London is greener, because it never happened.