A couple of years ago, Daniel Raven Ellison, a geography teacher from Ealing, had an interesting thought: What if London became a National Park?
In his vision, Daniel saw London as a place where people and nature were better connected, where the air was clean to breathe and the rivers safe to swim in, and where every child spent time exploring and learning outdoors.
It didn’t take him long to find people who shared this vision. Over the course of 18 months, cyclists, swimmers, students, teachers gardeners, pensioners, walkers, tree climbers, kayakers, scientists, activists, politicians, business owners, parents, grandparents and children came together to form a people’s movement to declare Greater London the world’s first National Park City (NPC).
What’s special about London?
The idea is not as radical as it first sounds.
London, like most cities, is generally regarded as a concrete jungle. But the reality, according to Greenspace Information for Greater London (GiGL), is that almost half (47%) of the capital city is made up of green space, comprising 3,000 parks, 30,000 allotments, 3.8 million gardens, 1,400 Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation and 8.3 million trees. The city is not short on blue space either, with over 850km of streams, rivers and canals enjoyed by over 50 canoe clubs.
‘When people think of London they have a vision of concrete and tarmac, because that’s what they see when they get off the tube, go to work or school and come home,’ says Daniel. ‘In our popular imagination we think of the city as made up of roads because they are dominant in our lives but in reality they take up a small proportion of the city—just 12%—compared with green and blue spaces.’
These green and blue corners aren’t just good for people; they provide vital havens for wildlife too. Much of the UK’s countryside has become depleted of wildlife due to intensive farming; whereas, 16,000 species have been recorded in London by GiGL, making it the most biodiverse region of the country.
What’s more, Londoners have a long and proud tradition of caring for their natural assets, whether that’s through the activities of local community groups such as Friends of Parks or Tree Wardens, through the work of large organisations such as the Corporation of London or through the efforts of conservation charities such as the London Wildlife Trust (LWT).
The city also stands out as the home of world renowned environmental institutions such as the Natural History Museum and the Royal Geographical Society.
Why do we need to do more?
Sadly, not everyone is making the most of London’s extraordinary natural heritage. While there are excellent environmental initiatives in some areas, such as Bankside Open Spaces Trust (BOST), other areas are not so blessed. In addition, most Londoners are unaware of the city’s 1,000km network of green footpaths, while 90% of visitors to the capital only seek out its top 20 attractions.
In particular, Daniel believes we need to do a better job of ensuring that children in London experience the wild. Few London schools provide outdoor learning, and LWT research suggests that one in seven London children has not played outdoors by themselves in the last year.
‘There are more people engaging with nature in London than in any other region in the country, and not just because of population size, but I don’t think it’s good enough,’ he asserts. ‘I walked from South to North London during last year’s London Tree Week, walking along green corridors such as the Capital Ring. Along the way, I saw foxes, deer, snakes, rabbits, and three species of woodpecker, but not one child did I see on a sunny day in the school holidays.’
Why a National Park?
Daniel believes that one way in which London could realise the full potential of its natural capital is by becoming a National Park.
Britain currently has 15 National Parks, 10 of which are located in England. Visited by millions every year, these beautiful, unique and inspiring places are living, working landscapes with thriving rural businesses.
National Parks in England are designated by Natural England based on their natural beauty, abundance of wildlife and opportunities for outdoor recreation. London certainly checks all of these boxes. However, there is one small snag: National Parks also have to be in the countryside, which London most certainly is not.
To get around this problem, Daniel and those who share his vision are campaigning to establish a new kind of national park outside of current legislation that would be declared from the grassroots up.
An urban national park would clearly be quite different to a traditional one, but according to Paul Hamblin, Executive Director of National Parks England, the two models would share ‘common ground’.
‘Across the globe National Parks vary in their purposes, powers and geographical coverage,’ he says. ‘We see a National Park City as a new concept, but one that can usefully draw on the underlying principles for National Parks.’
Following a couple of public consultations and a crowdfunding appeal supported by 347 individuals and organisations, the proposal to make Greater London the world’s first NPC was published.
For the proposal to become reality, it needs the buy-in of those who live in and govern London. This translates as at least two-thirds of the city’s 649 electoral wards, as well as the backing of the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.
What would happen next?
If the campaign is a success, the Greater London National Park Partnership would be formed to uphold the principles of the NPC.
Its long list of ambitious aims include: giving all Londoners free and easy access to high-quality green space; connecting 100% of London’s children with nature; inspiring the development of green homes and businesses; and making at least 51% of the city green.
Unlike traditional rural National Park Authorities, the Greater London NPC Partnership wouldn’t have any planning powers. Instead, the body would work to inspire individuals, groups, councils and schools to make the most of their green and blue spaces through city wide campaigns and a shared Bank of Ideas.
Such could be the reach of the Partnership that thousands of families could be inspired to plant a tree in their front gardens; whole neighbourhoods could agree to create Hedgehog Highways; and hundreds of schools could commit to putting forest classrooms on their curricula. Recreational and green businesses would also receive a massive boost from the credos of being located within a NPC, while architects and town planners could radically rethink the way they view and design the city.
‘The power to protect and enhance doesn’t just come from the top down; it also comes from inspiring hunger and passion in people,’ explains Daniel. ‘Through London NPC we could show people the potential of their local green spaces and scale up pockets of best practice.’
Funded by a mixture of corporate and private giving, the Partnership would cost around £4-5 million per year to run, which is roughly the same as a rural National Park.
Who would benefit?
There are concerns that a NPC might devalue the status of rural National Parks, but the concept has actually won favour with most National Park Authorities because they recognise the value of switching more people onto nature, especially the 80% of the UK population who live in urban areas.
Paul is confident that if London were to become a NPC, it would help to ‘showcase the beauty that exists and is available to all its residents in our existing National Parks,’ as well as ‘bringing communities together to enhance the local environment’.
But it is not just London, or even Britain, that stands to benefit from the NPC model. Other cities around the world could follow in London’s footsteps, leading to a worldwide network of NPCs populated by groups and individuals that are committed to caring for the natural world as a whole.
‘The movement is not introspective,’ insists Daniel. ‘Wildlife around the world is being massacred. If people in cities feel alienated from nature then they will not be moved to take action to protect it.’
‘Declaring London a National Park City has the potential to bring a renewed focus to the need to protect the environment,’ adds Paul. ‘It should also remind us all that the purposes and approach of National Parks remains as relevant today as when they were first formed.’
Londoners can join the campaign by declaring their support and sending out a standard letter to their ward councillors via the London NPC website. So far, the movement has gained the backing of the London Assembly and all London mayoral candidates, as well as achieving 41% of the electoral ward target. This puts it on track to become mandate by the end of 2016, which means that, as early as 2018, London could make history by declaring itself the world’s very first National Park City.