From meadows and mountains to moorlands and wetlands, our inspirational and distinctive flagship protected areas include every kind of major habitat apart from one – a landscape-scale urban habitat.
The reality is that cities, our biggest urban habitats, can be more ecologically diverse and valuable than large parts of the countryside.
They can also be equally as good for outdoor adventures and, by their nature, be far more accessible and inclusive. Covering seven per cent of the UK and ten per cent of England, urban areas are especially important because 80 per cent of our population live in them.
London is a great example. Our capital is well known as a financial, cultural and technological centre, but it is one of our country’s biodiversity hotspots too. As well as being home to 8.6 million homo sapiens, there are 8.3 million trees and 13,000 species of wildlife. 1,572km2 in area, 47 per cent of the capital is physically green and within the city’s limits are 142 local nature reserves, 37 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and two National Nature Reserves.
According to existing legislation, a city cannot be designated as a national park. In England, an area must be ‘outstanding for outdoor recreation’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘open-country’. London certainly passes the first of these three tests, may pass the second, but it certainly isn’t open-country.
For me, the purposes of our national parks are more interesting than how they are classified. In England and Wales these are to conserve and enhance natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage, and to promote the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the national park by the public.
When carrying out these purposes, National Park Authorities also have a duty to seek to foster the economic and social well-being of the communities they serve. This way of thinking about a landscape is extremely powerful and one that a city such as London could benefit highly from.
“Realising this vision would protect green space, improve the richness and connectivity of habitats, inspire new business activities, improve air quality, and foster a new shared identity for Londoners”
Inspired by our capital’s landscape, the people who look after it and our current national parks, there is a growing movement calling for London to be declared the world’s first National Park City. Supported by thousands of individuals, more than 100 organisations and Conservative, Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat politicians, the main driver is not that London should be thought about in the same way as our current national parks – but that we should start using national park thinking in our country’s biggest city.
This new kind of national park would learn and take inspiration from our current national parks, but be distinctively different. It would share similar purposes to rural national parks, but conserve London’s ability to be dynamic, evolve and grow. Unlike rural national parks, a London National Park City would not have any formal planning powers. Instead it would focus on helping residents and visitors to better understand and take action to improve London’s environment and their enjoyment of it.
One of the greatest motivations for moving the campaign forward is the need to increase the number of children exploring, playing and learning outdoors. In a recent walk across London through many of the capital’s woodlands, I saw deer, foxes, snakes and woodpeckers, but not one child in any of the woods, and this was a warm sunny Friday during the school holidays.
Research by Natural England has revealed that as many as one in seven London parents have not taken their child to play in a natural environment in the past year. Work by childhood expert Tim Gill for the Greater London Authority also found that formal initiatives to connect London’s children to nature reach as few as just four per cent of London’s kids.
We can act together to turn this around. One of the aims of a Greater London National Park City would be to connect 100 per cent of London’s children to nature. An ambition that would not only have positive effects on young people’s education, mental health and well-being, but no doubt increase how much they understand and value urban natural heritage, increasing the likelihood of them protecting and enjoying it not only on their doorstep, but in far more distant places too.
Realising this vision would bring about other benefits too. It would help to protect green space, improve the richness and connectivity of habitats, inspire new business activities, improve air quality, foster a new shared identity for Londoners and promote London as a Green World City.
Making London a National Park City is possible. All that is needed is for lots of people to join the movement by declaring their support.
This article was published in the October 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine