London: A National Park City

David Goode, Bath. 
August 16, 2015

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Something very significant is happening in London. It’s a plan to make London the world’s first National Park City. Now that’s an idea that could catch on in a very big way.

Over the past 18 months, a movement has been growing, drawing together Londoners who want to apply National Park principles to the whole of Greater London. The aim is to turn traditional attitudes to the city inside out, ensuring that nature has a place in every aspect of London’s fabric and making it accessible to every Londoner. The idea has gained huge support from many different sectors of society. It’s a people’s movement that is gaining momentum by the day and, last month, a draft charter was launched for public consultation (see NationalParkCity.London).

St James's Park
St James’s Park in Westminster, where people and nature co-exist a stone’s throw from parliament. Copyright David Goode.

The steering group has come up with a working definition of a National Park City:

“A large urban area that is managed and semi-protected through both formal and informal means to enhance the natural capital of its living landscape. A defining feature is the widespread and significant commitment of residents, visitors and decision-makers to allow natural processes to provide a foundation for a better quality of life for wildlife and people”.

They have gone further by identifying nine specific aims:

  • Ensure that 100 percent of Londoners have free and easy access to high quality green space.
  • Connect 100 percent of London’s children to nature.
  • Make the majority of London physically green.
  • Improve London’s air and water quality year on year.
  • Improve the richness, connectivity and biodiversity of London’s habitats.
  • Inspire the building of affordable green homes.
  • Inspire new business activities.
  • Promote London as a Green World City.
  • Nurture a shared National Park City identity for Londoners.
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Richmond Park, a Royal deer park since 1637, was designated as a National Nature Reserve in 2000. Copyright David Goode.

This movement is not something that has suddenly emerged out of the blue. London has a long and impressive history of protecting its green environment, from the Royal Parks created in the late medieval and Tudor periods, to the Metropolitan gardens movement of the 19th century and Garden City suburbs of the early 20th century, to the designation of London’s Green Belt and Metropolitan Open Land in the 1950s and the massive proliferation of urban nature reserves since the 1980s, large numbers of which are now protected through planning legislation. The idea of a National Park City is building on firm foundations.

The statistics are extraordinary. Greater London covers nearly 1600 km2, of which 47 percent is physically green. Nearly 20 percent is made up of private gardens and there are 3,000 parks. The total length of streams, rivers and canals is more than 850km, many of which are accessible by footpaths. Signed footpaths and well established greenways exceed 1000km in length. London’s natural habitats are exceptional, with considerable areas of ancient woodland, meadows, heath and common, as well as ancient deer parks—such as Richmond Park—and recently created wetlands that have proved to be extremely popular. These natural habitats include some that are internationally important, but it is particularly striking that the total amount of natural habitat now protected by nature conservation designations amounts to nearly 20 percent of Greater London.

©2015 National Park City, London.
©2015 National Park City, London.

These habitats, which are spread throughout the capital, include about 50 specially protected areas of national significance, 142 Local Nature Reserves and over 1400 Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation. Londoners have access to hundreds of natural areas within this great conurbation and there are numerous groups providing everyone with facilities for contact with nature. It is an extraordinary paradox that the capital city of the UK, with 8.6 million people, is so rich in accessible wildlife compared with rural farmland, which is fast becoming bereft of nature.

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Walking through Brook Farm Open Space along the Dollis Valley Green Walk, which takes you across north London to Hampstead Heath. Copyright David Goode.

So, the idea of a National Park City is not so strange as it may seem. Indeed, if we were not so conditioned by deep seated assumptions that a national park must be a pristine wilderness, or that a city must be an entirely man-made entity from which nature should be banished, the idea might have emerged much earlier. It is entirely logical. London is paving the way for a new approach that will be very exciting.

What makes me excited is that the idea has sprung from a diverse group of ordinary Londoners who have a vision for the future. It is not a top-down initiative from government, or the Mayor, or from IUCN or UNESCO. This is a people’s movement. The prospectus says, “All kinds of people are involved: cyclists, scientists, tree climbers, teachers, students, pensioners, unemployed, under-employed, doctors, swimmers, gardeners, artists, walkers, kayakers, activists, wildlife watchers, politicians, children, parents, and grandparents.”

They have put it in plain words:

Let’s make London the world’s first National Park City. A city where people and nature are better connected. A city that is rich with wildlife and every child benefits from exploring, playing and learning outdoors. A city where we all enjoy high-quality green spaces, the air is clean to breathe, it’s a pleasure to swim in its rivers and green homes are affordable. Together we can make London a greener, healthier and fairer place to live. Together we can make London a National Park City. Why not?”

Having worked on a detailed strategy to protect London’s wildlife habitats since the 1980s (see link below), I am delighted that this new initiative is based on a much broader constituency. It gives ordinary people a voice, an opportunity to influence London’s environment in ways that have not been possible before and an opportunity for everyone to benefit from London’s natural assets.

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Mudchute City Farm, next to the financial district of Canary Wharf, in 2007. Copyright David Goode.

The idea has been remarkably well received. Celebrities such as Stephen Fry have been wholehearted in their support. He said, “Imagine London as the first National Park City. Wow, heck of a thought. Help make it happen.” But most of the comments come from lesser-known people who recognise the enormous opportunities offered by this idea to their own particular area of work. Whether it be child poverty, sustainable schools, transport planning, mental health, green building projects, or provision of long distance footpaths, these are just a few of the vast array of activities that are likely to be affected. Sir Terry Farrell, the prominent architect and urban planner, described it as “One vision to inspire a million projects.”

It has also gained the support of the London Assembly and several London boroughs, though the instigators are not looking for the kind of top-down designation by Government that is the hallmark of traditional national parks. This will be a people’s project which will act as a catalyst to promote new solutions for our capital city. But the idea of a National Park City could take the concept of nature in the city into a whole new realm. If it catches on, it could go a long way to meet the kinds of objectives now being espoused by IUCN for protection of urban natural areas; I am sure it will influence the future debate on development of urban Biosphere Nature Reserves.

Momentum is growing in London for this radical new venture and there are positive signs, even in these early stages, that it could shake up some long established attitudes to nature. I believe there is a parallel here with public perceptions of climate change. In her book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein argues that it will require a shift of public attitudes on a scale equivalent to the movement for abolition of slavery if we are to reverse current trends. So it is, too, with our perception of nature in our predominantly urban lives. But the idea of a National Park City led by citizens turns everything on its head. I’m all for it.

With acknowledgements to the National Park City steering group prospectus.

David Goode
London

On The Nature of Cities

Postscript: The work done by the London Ecology Unit and others to protect wildlife habitats in London was described in some detail in The Urban Imperative (see https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/PAPS-015.pdf.)

David Goode

About the Writer:
David Goode

David Goode has over 40 years experience working in both central and local government in the UK and an international reputation for environmental projects, ranging from wetland conservation to urban sustainability.

David Goode

David Goode

David Goode has over 40 years experience working in both central and local government in the UK and an international reputation for environmental projects, ranging from wetland conservation to urban sustainability. He was Senior Ecologist at the Greater London Council, Director of the London Ecology Unit and latterly Head of Environment at the Greater London Authority. He has been directly involved in developing the theory and practice of urban nature conservation, both as a professional ecologist and an enthusiastic naturalist. He published Wild in London (Michael Joseph) in 1986, co-edited the Routledge Handbook of Urban Ecology, published in 2011, followed by his highly acclaimed Nature in Towns and Cities (Harper Collins) in 2014. He has worked in major cities in China, and in Santiago, Chile. A Visiting Professor at University College London since 1994, he was Honorary Professor at East China Normal University from 1996-2001. He is a member of the IUCN Specialist Group on Urban Conservation Strategies. He is a Past President and now Patron of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management. But David remains at heart a naturalist, and is currently producing an app for the people of Bath to explore their local natural history.

8 thoughts on “London: A National Park City

  1. I have loved this project since I first heard of it, months and months ago. I used to live in London, near Hampstead Heath, and we all love it. When young I enjoyed Regents Park and Hyde Park, and our little green square in the middle of the houses in St. John’s Wood. There is a lot of nature in these areas and that, too, should be encouraged and nurtured. Please, everyone, support this.

  2. This idea to make a city a national park is such a backward and demagogical idea. The poor spirits who are carrying this idea will create more confusion and make the planet loose 20 years. Any year lost nowadays is so dangerous!
    These poor spirits are more than fool… What a sadness!

    1. There are two important things that are implied in Jacqueline’s comment (and an earlier one): (1) that improving the greenness (including in literal senses such as with parks and open space) of cities would NOT also be good for global sustainability and urban ecological footprints; and (2) that somehow people in cities deserve to live in concrete grey jungles, devoid of green space.

      The first is false; the second is immoral. Cities are a fact of life today. Designing cities with more focused ecological intent and sophistication, with green spaces and other green infrastructure, better pubic transportation, local food, etc., will reduce their per capita consumption, their footprint and advance the cause of global sustainability. It would also be good for biodiversity conservation. In addition, the people who live in today’s cities deserve the clean air, biodiversity, and other benefits and beauties that green provides.

      In fact, sustainable cities are the world’s best hope. If you want to do some good in the world for sustainability and the world’s ecological balance, move to a city and help make it better.

      For these reasons, I stand and applaud the work of the those trying to create the London National Park.

      1. Don’t assume something is implied in my words. I am not talking about green vs grey city, I am talking about changing the definition of “national Park” for the sake of branding a city which is far from being “green”. Look : London, even if branded capital of finance, is one place on Earth which sees the black-money being massively white-washed. This destroys economy of many families (outside London and even in London), and of many places on earth. Soon, London will do exactly the same on another concept : Nature. London will eco-washed itself and its way of life. Despite this publicity, no positive green impact will be seen on the planet and the negative one will be reinforced.

        “London National Park” guys don’t know where they are going (this organization says it itself : We will make people create green ideas… They don’t even have ideas despite being green experts! This seems incredible but is the truth (please read their documents). This movement is created on hype (exactly the same as yours who assumes my thought ) and green illusion. The worse is those experts know they already lost the battle: When you read their conferences, they are sending SOS, not ideas. Their public is mislead. The only thing we know they are concretely doing is to destroy the world “national park’ concept, and with it the biodiversity concept (they are actually sending us back to nature concept). They are creating a green movement with no impact on the planet, sowing seeds of doubt in other ecological fronts.

        Please don’t assume what I think.

        And by the way, note that there is no use inviting people to come into the city as, with “the nature of the cities” and “London National Park”, city will be coming to them.

  3. The campaign for London National Park City is not about designating London as a traditional National Park. It is about aspiring to create a new model – a National Park City. A National City aspires to embrace nature within its social and cultural life. It will not only focus on existing outstanding spaces but work with people to increase access to nature, improving quality of life across its areas of concrete jungle. There is no quick fix – all the negatives within London as a city stand side by side with its positives.

    To this end, we have the support of all the National Parks in the UK. They understand the value of this idea – the timeliness of making an effort that highlights the need for a sustainable solution against the sheer fact that we have an increasing number of cities. They are looking forward, in years to come, to an emergent model that may join the family of National Parks and make an inspiring contribution to an urbanizing world.

    The people of London are with us. A recent survey found that 8.5 out of every 10 Londoners would like London to go down the road of becoming a National Park City. They recognise that this vision is relevant to their lives. The declaration of London as a National Park City, which we are working towards, will be the starting point of the vision, not the endpoint.

    Judy Ling Wong CBE
    Steering Group London NPC

  4. Thank you for bringing another perspective; your reservations certainly make one think more about this proposal. I’d be interested in hearing details of your vision for London.

    1. In response to the interest in hearing more details about the vision for London NPC, I thought I might just share one or two aspects that give a feel for the direction of the thinking for this very urban concept. Care of protected outstanding areas and increasing access to them, with the building up of deeper understanding and unlocking more motivation to volunteer is obvious. However there are other most exciting and interesting opportunities.

      London’s inner city areas are full of social housing for disadvantaged low-income groups. You may be surprised to hear that, in London, we have more green space owned by social landlords than all the public parks and gardens put together! However, much of this is of the lowest quality- generally boring mown grass and a lot of issues around dog mess. Can you imagine enthusing and enabling residents to transform some of these spaces and bringing social landlords round to giving permission for wildlife gardens, mini-orchards or natural play areas of the highest quality for children? Such access to nature would be right outside the windows of some of our most deprived communities. This would additionally be an opportunity to kick start a beginning of the building up of a continuity of wild spaces right across the city. In the public domain, there are inklings of awakenings to squeezing in more nature too. In the Borough Lambeth itself, recently, in particular streets, the local authority has been instrumental in taking up the paving slabs between street trees and planting these areas up. Such apparently small interventions are nevertheless where people live and walk to work everyday.

      What we are doing is not set in stone. Part of it is about spotting good examples, many of which already exist, and significantly multiplying the effect. It is about persistently and strategically turning the momentum of single actions into a mass attitude that begins to penetrate everyday living. It will not just be about only doing things to the environment but also about changing behavior and not doing certain things as awareness increases. For example, using cars less or not at all and helping to improve air quality.

      On the fun side, and enjoyment needs to be a big big part of this, we hope to switch on specific cultural contributions from our multicultural community. One idea is to invite parents and grandparents to come into parks, across a string of festival days, to simply show off traditional outdoor games, or how to make toys and useful things out of natural materials. By multicultural, I do not mean non-white. I would like to make the point that everyone has a specific cultural origin. Break down the word “British” and we have people from Cornwall, Northumberland, Snowdonia (North Wales the stronghold of Welsh speakers), the Orkneys and so on – all distinctive and fascinating in their diversity.

      I think this is more than enough for now, and thank you for your interest.

      Judy Ling Wong CBE
      Steering Group London NPC

  5. Waouw! The city which exported the destruction of the best cultures of nature in the world (and still export it to feed their economy) wants to become the world example of the culture of nature. That is too much! Hey guys in England, first try to improve your current national parks before wishing to give the world a lesson of nature. Where are your super-predators? your mega-fauna? all gone since long! Hen-harrier will follow… Red-squirrel… and let’s not talk about the badger your government wants to eradicate… And you want to become an example to the world? London national park city is not an idea, it is an illusion.

    London is not a sustainable entity (even if we count in the small counterparts this London national park gang is asking for in exchange of their chimerical creation). Calling something which is not sustainable a national park is a wrong appeal : let’s go to king cross, London, where a new construction zone is coming out. It is a new development and guys could have made it a sustainable one (we know how to do green, the builders don’t have this excuse of not knowing). Unfortunately, the new zone is far from being sustainable. No problem, the constructors got the idea to place small hype gardens inside : An artificial “natural swimming pound” (which follow a patented but hidden and sealed solution (that’s weird btw) that barely invites nature… Just enough for the e-buzz just like a cheaply designed product. Is it this the green businesses londonNP wishes for? There are also 10 fruit trees only (gardeners say : “ok it is not enough but this shows what can be done” -sic- … Instead of showing, why don’t you do it guys?). A compost bin… few vegetables planted in few pots in restaurants here and there which the restaurants promote in their menu (are you kidding us with such a green-wash?). But the best starts when you deep talk with the gardeners in charge of these green spaces. They proudly will tell you that towns nowadays protect nature in a better way than countryside (what Mr Goode is almost telling us as well): hence, they go on saying “more towns should grow over countryside”!? Here we are: London national park city is an idea which can give free hand to urban sprawl and make gardeners think upside down. Mr Goode is wrong in telling us that LondonNP idea comes from the green past of London. In reality, it follows only the grey past of London, which is the origin of the world industrial revolution. LondonNP is a step further into a grey world.

    The definition created by LondonNP brings no value addition. On the contrary, it is a blatant value subtraction. Before, national park were protected zone. Now it is a semi-protected zone. Yahooo!!! To call such a regression an improvement and to compare it with the abolition of slavery is a bit tricky, no? Maybe after so many year of lost battles, our green guys in IUCN lost their mind ?

    The desire of London to become (sorry, to be named) the first world national park city is so colonialist also. The idea of “nature” they follow is the western idea of nature (and the western idea of protecting nature). This is a final touch of the colonialist concept of national park which excludes other culture from protected areas. Look at all development in the world. To be called modern (compounds, airport, mall, highways, cities…), they need to follow the western idea of nature: invented gardens (the best of the best is innovating garden!). The latest is to create a green-wall (very poorly sustainable, very highly buzzable) or a green-bridge (like the one in London : 175 millions pound for a total gentrificating stuff! Is LondonNP able to integrate their minority’s idea of nature? Their white paper says they will but I am sure it can’t as it is based on London-centric idea of nature. No multi-culturalism in the white paper at all… only London with london turning around london… (And by the way, not even a decent enough acknowledgement on what made London so green, this article of Mr Goode explains it in a much better way than LondonNP’s white paper why London).

    A lot of weird communicating strategy is used to increase the momentum of this idea (Hence I am sure politicians will follow for sure. I am giving it a bet). For example, we are rightly against intensive agriculture in the countryside but followers of LondonNP (sorry they should be called founders as per LondonNP communicating plan) are re-forwarding news happily about intensive urban agriculture, worse, about intensive urban garden. Nobody is educating them. Why? Are we really in a bottom-up situation? No way. We are in a fake ascending decision-making process. Just a hype created with the help of the Internet. Do londonNP communicates the amount of carbon used for their thunderclap, twitting, share of images, thousands of prospectus… Do they care for it? Do they talk about it in the white-paper? Do they carbon compensate it as a current reality of the world is asking for? No. It is a shame that such a huge steering group of green specialists in a developing country doesn’t even think green… A green image is not at all a green stuff. A green prospectus with the word green is not a green stuff. LondonNP is not even the change it wants to be. Some countries have no problem to forbid photography in their national parks. And we have LondonNP in the other side which proudly promotes photos of natures calling it connecting with nature… This perception of nature is not green but counter-green. It is urban sprawl directly linked to your neurons.

    Biodiversity is not nature but a part of it. When I go surfing, I feel in phase with nature and want to protect this moment but there is no question of biodiversity here. Then, build a national park around the protection of biodiversity will only lead us to ecological boredom and won’t “shake up some long established attitudes to nature”. To be shaken up, our attitudes to nature should not be guided by value-subtraction or by a vaguely defined surge of good desire.

    London national park city is a spoiled idea.

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