This post is by guerrilla geographer Daniel Raven-Ellison, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and the driving force behind a campaign to make London the world’s first National Park City.
London is a remarkable city. In addition to the capital’s 8.3 million people, it is home to over 13,000 species of wildlife. While buildings occupy just 14 per cent of its urban footprint, green space covers 47 per cent.
By international standards London is a green capital, encompassing 3,000 parks, 142 local nature reserves, two national nature reserves and four World Heritage Sites. The Thames is not only the most publicly accessible major river in the world, but is also used for recreation more than any other stretch of open water in the country. The Thames footpath is one of Britain’s most famous National Trails and London is also endowed with a series of long distance footpaths that circumnavigate and cross the city.
The opportunity cost
But the people who live in, work in and enjoy London are collectively experiencing a massive opportunity cost in doing so because the most is not being made of the city’s extraordinary natural capital. This cost is not only directly to London’s economy through lost business potential such as green innovation and tourism, but to the NHS through increasing mental health and obesity related illness. The less clear but potentially much greater cost is to our children’s development.
Last year I walked across London from Croydon’s King’s Wood in the south to High Barnet in the north. My aim was to stay within London’s green chains of woodlands as best I could. It was a sunny, warm day during the school holidays. I saw deer, foxes, snakes and woodpeckers, but not a single child. The very people who should be enjoying these wild spaces most were absent, and the evidence from Natural England backs up what I found. One in seven London parents have not taken their children to play outdoors in a green space in the past year.
This worries me deeply. It has an impact on children’s development, health, opportunities to learn and, on a societal level, their understanding of the value of wildlife and the environment. Will a child who has not played in natural places empathise with the environment, nature and each other to the same degree as one who has?
A couple of years ago I visited all 15 of the UK’s national parks. These highly regarded organisations aim to conserve natural and cultural heritage, help people to understand and enjoy the landscape and foster the economic and social well-being of local communities. Together they represent all of the UK’s major terrestrial habitats apart from one: the urban habitat. Seven per cent of the UK and ten per cent of England is recognised as urban, but this vitally important habitat is currently excluded.
A bold and enticing idea to see London differently
A Greater London National Park is a bold, daring and enticing vision for the capital that dares us to dream of an alternative future. It takes our common notion of what a national park is for, and disrupts it by inviting us to rethink what it means in relation to living in the city. For businesses, planners, politicians, teachers, gardeners, parents and children, it is an opportunity to develop a shared identity that challenges us to see the city differently and contribute however we are able to.
The Greater London National Park would be a new kind of National Park that would sit outside current legislation. It wouldn’t need additional planning powers to be effective. Instead, it would add value by helping us to unlock the capital’s natural potential to benefit the personal and professional lives of Londoners and visitors to the city. From encouraging us to explore London’s ancient woodlands and rewild our gardens, to developing green properties and communities, and creating new offers for tourists, a Greater London National Park would be the ideal hub to inform and inspire.
While the Greater London Authority-inspired All London Green Grid is a superb piece of policy that aims to make the most of the capital’s green infrastructure, it stops short of fully engaging the public. A Greater London National Park would fill this gap.
2015 is going to be a big year for the campaign. Nearly 90 organisations are already Friends of the Greater London National Park initiative. They represent large companies and universities to charities and community groups. The idea is supported by politicians in all the major political parties and the Mayor of London’s office recently announced that it will invest staff time to help develop it into a full proposal. This is happening in the first half of this year and the proposal will be published in time to present it to each of the London Mayoral election candidates in May 2016.
We look forward to making this radical proposition a reality.
How to find out more and get involved:
- Visit http://www.greaterlondonnationalpark.org.uk
- Sign the petition https://www.change.org/p/become-a-founder-of-the-greater-london-national-park-glnp
- Sign your organisation up as a Friend of the Greater London National Park initiative http://www.greaterlondonnationalpark.org.uk/get-involved/friends-of-the-greater-london-national-park/
- Attend ‘Reimagine London: What if we made London a National Park?’ At the South Bank this February http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/reimagine-london-what-if-we-made-london-a-national-park-tickets-12957346773
Or contact Daniel on Twitter at @LondonNP