London’s National Park City could offer a refreshing new overview for greenspace management. To what degree will it add value to current initiatives and to what extent might it divert funds and attention from them?
National Parks in the City’s realm
Cities are expanding rapidly in complex and dynamic ways. The UN estimates that every week approximately 3 million people move to cities (UN, 2009). In addition to population pressures, cities face environmental pressures such as the need for climate resilience, managing soil contamination and regulating air and water quality. In London these are high profile matters, and questions of how to value, govern and protect the city’s green spaces is a constant challenge for planners, politicians and green groups. The idea of a making London a National Park City might be an important and timely move but with no real planning powers nor a clear plan for greenspace management, what can or should it deliver in real terms? This article considers the notion of the Park beyond a boundary and what a fluid and flexible approach might mean for London’s communities and their relationship to the natural environment.
Participating in nature
To give some context to this initiative, it’s helpful to look at how and why the National Park tag has been chosen and made to fit.
National Parks in the UK were set up to provide public access and recreational enjoyment in places of ‘natural beauty’, mostly high upland regions of Britain: heaths and moors, peaks and lakelands. Although there are two UK cities that partially sit within National Park boundaries (Norwich and Sheffield) the natural features of these urban areas do not conform to National Park’s criteria and image. National Parks have been mostly framed as destinations. Places for suburban and urban communities to escape the bustle of their materialistic life. When the UK’s first National Parks were created in 1949, the secretary of the Standing Committee on National Parks at the time, John Dower, recommended that they should be located near enough for people who live in big cities to easily visit them. Today the National Parks collectively host over 90 million visitors a year, most of whom come from the densely populated south-east region or from the regions closest to their respective nearby National Parks (nationalparks.gov.uk).
The Autumn 2017 Launch event of London National Park City. Photo: Cara Clancy
Ninety three per cent of National Park visitors arrive by private car (nationalparks.gov.uk). Minority ethnic communities make up only 1% of the visitors to National Parks and many have never been into the countryside at all (Natural England, 2012; CABE, 2010). Language barriers and poor access to information are part of the issue, but it’s also a question of ownership and inclusion – namely, who feels they can participate in the management of the countryside? Many minority ethnic groups feel that they have no entitlement to be in the countryside or are not welcome to visit (Judy Ling Wong, 1998, 2005). Historically the British countryside has largely been owned (literally and conceptually) by the white, male, upper-middle class. National Parks’ brand and community structures are tied up with British heritage and therefore difficult to perceive as relevant or desirable to ethnic communities.
Efforts have been made to offer a more inclusive experience, such as the Campaign for National Parks’ Mosaic Project, 2012-2015, but until some of the more deeply embedded cultural and institutional barriers are addressed, it is unlikely that National Parks will attract a more diverse range of visitors. And should we really be framing nature as something separate to ‘visit’ anyway? A different outlook can be found in the National Park City initiative. Its proponents do not specify a fixed location for where nature is to be found, but instead suggest that that ‘park’ is all around us, from bin-raiding foxes and Trafalgar Square pigeons to garden ponds, grassy verges and weed-filled pavements. Experiencing nature is just a case of stepping outside one’s front door. To this extent, the National Park City offers up an opportunity to rethink the city, inviting wider parts of society to define and participate in the natures that matter to them. But how does it work in practice?
Experiencing a National Park City
Approximately 47% of London is green space, if you include allotments, gardens, recreation grounds and other green amenity spaces (GiGL CIC, 2015). This is a significant figure in comparison with other cities around the world. But with the city set to grow to 11 million by 2050, pressures on these spaces will undoubtedly increase (e.g. according to recent analysis by London Councils, the capital needs to build over 500,000 new homes by 2021 just to keep pace with current population growth), and current issues like air quality, water management and river health are not going away. In addition, there is the related issue of access: according to the GLA’s Draft London Environment Strategy (2017) only half of Londoners actually experience public open spaces and this could be for a variety of reasons.
The Autumn 2017 Launch event of London National Park City. Photo: Cara Clancy
The National Park City initiative therefore arrives at an interesting time. It was born out of a vision for a ‘greener, healthier, fairer and more beautiful capital city’ (NPC Proposal, 2015). The idea was launched to the public in 2014 and since then its proponents have worked to galvanise support from a whole range of community groups, businesses, universities and bodies across all sectors, as well as politicians and everyday Londoners. After a series of promotional events, crowdfunding campaigns and public consultations, the drivers of the initiative finalised and published their vision in 2015. In order to deliver key aspects of the vision a charitable organisation (National Park City Foundation) was established in 2017 to help realise their ambitions, alongside the many individuals and groups that have declared their support to ‘make London the world’s first National Park City’ (NPC website).
The NPC initiative wants to increase the amount of green space in London to 51% by 2051 and help ensure green and open spaces are protected and cared for because of their intrinsic social value, calling on developers and planning authorities to “avoid advancing proposals that add to the loss of nature and habitats in Greater London” (NPC website). It also wants to ensure 100% of London’s children are connected to natural environments and benefitting from nature in some way – an objective that reflects a growing awareness of the health and wellbeing benefits of green space. These objectives clearly resonate with the wider policy thrusts such as the GLA’s ambition for a multifunctional network of green infrastructure, a low carbon transport sector, and a sustainable and resilient development model. But how will these aims be delivered? How will projects be decided upon and what will decisions reveal about preferences and priorities?
Common ground or competing ground?
NPC’s targets and goals are important but not particularly new or ground-breaking; many other organisations are working to tackle issues in similar ways. London Wildlife Trust for example helps to connect London residents with the wildlife on their doorsteps, working in housing estates (see Natural Estates project, Cockney Sparrow project), creating pockets of nature in dense urban hotspots (see Camley Street in Kings Cross), providing gateways to wildlife through educational programmes. Without careful consideration of how to build on pass successes there is a risk that the National Park City initiative becomes a branding exercise without any distinct deliverables. And although London might benefit from a ‘green rebrand’, is the NPC idea original enough to be considered of national importance? Several organisations have responded to the NPC proposal, including the Campaign for National Parks, and although there is general support for the initiative, many express concern over the potential duplication of work, conflicting interests and increased competition for funding.
In addition there are questions concerning the clarity of the initiative, its definition, purpose and structure. The initiative isn’t looking for planning functions or a legally-binding National Park City designation, and it does not propose to manage parks and green spaces. The priority is to collaborate with communities and existing bodies to apply the main purpose of a National Park (understanding and enjoyment of natural and cultural heritage) across an actual city. But this has its problems: in many respects, the UK National Park principles can never truly be applied to a city because of the different landscape contexts. The open countryside and tracts of wild landscape of National Parks contrast with the patchy mosaic of habitats and spaces that have evolved across the complex and messy form of cities. Indeed in cities the very idea of heritage is up for grabs and perhaps that’s why so many different green groups and management practices thrive in London. But it certainly makes city-wide plans a real challenge.
Greening the City – an already crowded scene
The London Mayor Sadiq Khan has announced his support for the initiative and pledged a £9m Greener City Fund to increase the cities’ trees and improve green infrastructure, which organisations can bid for. The National Park City has the potential to raise the profile of the city’s natural assets and bring together a common and shared vision for the many urban greening activities currently underway. But London has a complex legacy of green space planning, development, recreation and conservation. Trying to straddle all of these is not easy, particularly under current conditions. Despite these new GLA funds, local authority budgets are still being slashed and London is a heavily crowded market when it comes to the number of groups competing for pots of money. It will be important to see how the National Park City initiative can work with existing organisations to make the most of any momentum and public enthusiasm it may have built up, collaboratively seeking to understand the needs of the widest parts of society and, of course, wildlife.
Rethinking the city, rethinking nature
At the launch of the initiative’s new charitable organisation (National Park City Foundation) its key spokesperson Daniel Raven-Ellison said: “The only difference really between a National Park and a National Park City is the acknowledgement that the urban environment, the urban habitat, the urban landscape, is just as important as rainforest, or polar regions, or a desert area. It’s not more important, it’s not less important, but we shouldn’t alienate ourselves from nature just because we are the dominant species within this landscape. Acknowledging that opens up all kinds of opportunities.” (October 2017). This message chimes strongly with the long history of Western environmentalism and the Romantic Movement in Europe, which perceived humanity’s disconnect from the natural world. But bringing nature and National Park ideals centre-stage in the city brings a new realisation: vast and sublime landscapes may not appeal to the lives of cosmopolitan citizens. Small pockets of urban nature, from parks to river paths, and from churchyards to utility green space, might be much more beneficial, engaging and inclusive for late modern societies.
The National Park City presents a subtly new notion of nature. It prescribes no boundary for nature, nor does it specify what counts as nature. No species are privileged over others, no habitats are considered higher quality than others. ‘The park’ has no fixed geography, instead it flows in and through the city and its inhabitants. By shaping the narrative around the importance of urban green space and recognising that nature has multiple expressions, the NPC initiative helps widen the lens into nature, locating something much closer to home, and in doing so has the potential to create a more relevant story about what it means to access and participate in the natural environment – encouraging the widest range of society to have a more meaningful stake in experiencing a global city like London.
The whole city ecosystem
How does the fluid and somewhat ambivalent approach of NPC sit with the more targeted aims of nature conservation – namely, to protect and create a home for the many plants and animals that might otherwise be displaced or likely go extinct? Do conservation values become diluted in the rush to create and care for green infrastructure?
UK conservation frameworks are generally based on over 150 years of data gathering, analysis and decision-making. Of course flexibility is needed within these frameworks; they need to be made relevant to urban environments, recognising that cities have changed dramatically over the last 50 years and now harbour dynamic, unpredictable ecologies. But the conservation sector has limited resources and continually has to prioritise, drawing on long-term knowledge and experience. While it’s important to assign value to nature in its wider sense in urban environments, there is still a need to protect and manage official nature - to understand the city from the perspective of the most vulnerable species and the most fragile habitats.
Perhaps a priority challenge for the National Park City is how to encourage better relations with green spaces and, critically, better interactions with the plants and animals that also share and help define those spaces. Top-down planning interventions and strict governance regimes do little in this regard. So by taking a grassroots approach and working with existing groups, the National Park City initiative may well help to steer and link green infrastructure closer to local people and communities, recognising that ‘the community’ includes the assemblage of plants and animals that makes its home in the urban realm.