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A welcome nod to Cohen's grand plan
Soon after the Second World War, Lewis Cohen proposed a chain of gardens running right through the main valley of Brighton.
Then a Labour councillor and later to become a peer, Cohen was a man of boundless energy and enormous vision.
Some of his schemes, such as staging an annual arts festival or building a university, were great successes and the city still benefits from them today.
Others were too bold for Brighton to handle and were shelved, often reluctantly, by the then Tory council.
It’s odd how ideas come round again and Cohen would surely have been pleased that the council, now led by Greens, has some radical ideas for the area known as Valley Gardens.
They are considerably less grand than Cohen’s scheme which involved pulling down the east side of London Road to open up gardens linking Preston Park to The Level.
For good measure Cohen also advocated pulling down the Royal York Hotel so that there could be a green link between the sea and the southern end of Old Steine.
The council’s ideas cover the existing green areas and it is treading carefully following the outcry created recently by its plans to move the skate park in The Level to a different location in the open space.
Valley Gardens, given their name in the 1980s, are a pleasing string of lawns providing a welcome green area in the heart of Brighton.
But they are also marooned in the middle of a gigantic one-way system which makes access to them difficult for pedestrians.
In Cohen’s day, they were banned to the public, and students at the College of Art were regularly fined 49 shillings under some fusty old bylaw for simply daring to set foot in them.
One idea being suggested is moving all the traffic over to one side, probably the east. This would enable the gardens to be linked to key attractions such as the Royal Pavilion , the North Laine and the Dome.
It would also lessen the roar of traffic noise and enable the convoluted cycle lanes to be sorted out so that they were safer and simpler.
Looking at the area now, I don’t see that there would be enough room for bus lanes on the eastern side as well as for other traffic.
It’s absolutely essential that these bus lanes are retained and if possible enhanced because they are a vital factor in Brighton’s excellent bus network.
Lewis Cohen wanted the old River Wellsbourne, which lies below the gardens, to be brought to the surface and landscaped. Brighton is one of the few large British cities without a river.
The council is not going that far but could introduce water features which are fed by it.
Better use could be made of existing water features – the Old Steine and Mazda fountains, both magnificent in their different styles.
Valley Gardens used to be full of formal flower beds but the fashion is against them these days.
However it would be possible to introduce wild flowers in the same way as those along dual carriageway sections of the A259 and A270.
I would also like to see more sculptures to complement the existing statues and to acknowledge the presence nearby of Brighton University’s arts faculty.
Brighton is densely built and the square mile east of the gardens is the most heavily populated in southern England outside London.
It could take a lesson from the capital in how to make good use of public spaces. A fine example is Bishop’s Park in Fulham, which runs next to the Thames between the football ground and Putney Bridge.
This linear open space is only 20 acres in extent but seems much bigger. Plenty of amenities are packed into the park without it ever appearing overcrowded.
William Clarke Park and Saunders Park, both near the Lewes Road, are other examples of open spaces in need of a little love and affection.
But the Valley Gardens are the most urgent case because they are so prominent. They need to be made more welcoming and accessible.
Hard decisions must be made about rooting out drunks and druggies from The Level and Old Steine.
There may also be the need to restrict or even bar shows in marquees which block access and often leave the ground in a terrible mess.
Lewis Cohen’s grand vision will never come to pass. It was too big for Brighton. But enough of it could be put into place so that at least part of the gardens could be named after him.
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