London: National Park City
by Lucy Purdy
Credit: The Greater London National Park City
London: as far as nature goes, it’s a rather bleak space, right?
Former geography teacher Daniel Raven-Ellison says a resounding “no!” and has launched a campaign to make London the world’s first National Park City. The capital is actually home to 13,000 species, 3,000 parks, 30,000 allotments, more than three million gardens and two National Nature Reserves. Almost half of London is green space, and 60% is classified as open space.
Raven-Ellison, who has launched a consultation on the idea this week, says it could “radically change how we see, think about, design, manage and experience the city”.
“London’s landscape is very different to the countryside,” he admits “but it is equally as distinctive and inspiring”. He believes classification as a National Park City would prompt Londoners to re-imagine their city in a positive way, push growing projects to the fore, and help to tackle issues such as obesity and climate change along the way.
Raven-Ellison envisages an army of City Rangers representing all London boroughs who will connect up nature projects across the capital and “an inspirational hub” in central London to provide information and education.
This is not just a nice idea. Organisations who have officially lent the plan their support include the London Wildlife Trust, the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and Trees for Cities. In November, Raven-Ellison visited Sydney to share his vision at the IUCN World Parks Congress and in the UK in February, a Greater London National Park City event was attended by more than 600 people. A petition on Change.org has been signed by many experts including Chris Packham, George Monbiot and Baroness Jenny Jones. The intention is that the Greater London National Park City will be fully operational by July 2017.
So how could it prompt Londoners to see the city differently?
“Whenever I pass an entry sign and enter a national park,” says Raven-Ellison, “that small symbol instantly communicates a big idea to me. It evokes a sense that the place I am entering has a purpose – a purpose to enhance and care for natural and cultural heritage and make special efforts to help people understand and enjoy it more too.”
A successful campaign could see the capital’s green spaces turned into ‘edible parks’. As things stand, London is almost entirely dependent on food from abroad or other regions of the UK. Oil prices are volatile and global food shortages seem ever more likely. All of these call into question the city’s food security. Raven-Ellison believes using public open spaces to showcase fruit and vegetable growing could help transform Londoners’ relationship with what they eat. But the initiative would not simply be about the public realm.
“Maybe we’ll begin to rethink what a beautiful front garden looks like, and begin to celebrate what’s best for wildlife. Private gardens cover 24% of Greater London but evidence shows that 33% of gardens are paved over.”
Currently, one in seven of London’s children have not played in a natural environment with his or her parents in the past year. Raven-Ellison wants the National Park City to connect all children to nature.
“Let’s have National Park City Streets that are great, liveable, healthy and safe habitats where the indicator of their health is the diversity of children and wildlife enjoying them,” he says.
The hedges and edges of roads and streets in London and the city’s suburbs are often surprisingly wildlife rich. These could be developed into wildlife corridors, turning city travel into an opportunity to experience London’s biodiversity as well as a means of getting from A to B.
Raven-Ellison gestures at a photo, taken from the M4 as the motorway approaches London from Heathrow airport. A neon advert from a well-known drinks company dominates, surrounded by uninspiring architecture, with the merest splash of greenery visible in the foreground.
“This is the vision people see when they come into London,” he says. “It is designed by advertisers: it talks money. It’s a very bleak landscape. But you can see the green in the very margins. If we drop down to the side of the M4 there’s actually a very wild habitat: a diverse, exciting landscape. This is the vision of London we could be selling.”
The plan becomes particularly interesting when viewed through the lens of ‘provocative geography’. Perhaps there is much to be gained by simply referring to the city in a new way. How would it impact upon global trade and business for example if the words: “London: National Park City” were embossed upon everyone’s business card?
We can choose to see London as a map of the M25, a web of A roads and suburbs, or we can draw it another way. We could reveal its meadows, woodlands, pastures, heathlands, streams and marshes, etch upon it the place names which ring of the city’s natural and wildlife-rich past: Blackheath; Birdcage Walk where James I kept exotic birds, or Farringdon: a name which stems from ‘fern-covered hill’.
“Brand will be an important part of a Greater London National Park City because it is a powerful way to communicate ideas and stories and build communities of support,” says Raven-Ellison. “A National Park City should re-recreate that kind of ‘brand’ awareness and sense of place, not only for people passing a sign, but those who live permanently in the city too.”
And now is the time to act, he believes. Taken to extreme, London as a national park city could take the lead on a mass restoration of ecosystems, ‘rewilding’, as environmentalist and author George Monbiot terms it in his book Feral.
Raven-Ellison says: “I love rewilding. Rather than being on the back foot, rewilding puts conservation on to the offensive. With species around the world becoming extinct every day, we do not need to just protect wild spaces, we must push back to create more. In London there are 3.8 million gardens. The opportunity to bring life into the city is enormous.”
You can contribute to the Greater London National Park City green paper by visiting www.greaterlondonnationalpark.org.uk. A fully costed proposal will be published in July.