Earlier this week I was lucky enough to attend an event at the Southbank Centre which tried to address this question. The event brought together thinkers and activists from across the world of conservation, from the team behind the project to create a floating Lido in the Thames, to children beekeeping at school and a gardening fire fighter. They told us the real stories about how people across London are working towards this, and provided us all with the motivation to take action and to make it happen.
The UK is currently home to 15 National Parks which protect and conserve our diverse and beautiful landscapes. Around 40,000 people live within the boundaries of the National Parks, but they are thought to host more than 80 million visitors each year. They contribute more to the UK economy than the aerospace industry and yet they cost taxpayers less than 80p per year to maintain.
London, on the other hand, is the largest city in the UK, it is home to 8.6 million people from a wide mix of different backgrounds and cultures. When most people think of cities they see the industrial sites, transport infrastructure and sprawling residential development, but London is different. Thanks to the philanthropy of our Victorian forefathers, this city has been built to include a dense mosaic of gardens, rivers, parks woods, meadows, lakes and allotments. In fact London is currently home to at least 8.3 million trees, 13,000 species of wildlife and recent surveys have revealed it is around 47% green space by area, making it one of the greenest cities in Europe. Together with the unique built environment, this makes London one of the most unusual landscapes in the UK, offering unique opportunities for both wildlife and human recreation.
There are millions of people across London who are working hard to protect and care for these vital green spaces every day. Using the principles of the National Parks model would unify these diverse organisations behind the single vision of ensuring everyone in the capital has access to high quality green spaces.
To make London the world’s first National Park City would provide improvements to the mental and physical health of its residents. It would help to buffer against the impact of climate change and provide protection against environmental pollution. It would ensure the provision of space for children to play outside and access to recreational facilities for all. By making London a National Park city we could turn it into an even happier and healthier place both to live, and to visit.
The idea of establishing National Parks had been around for a while, but the United States were the first to legislate and Yellowstone National Park was designated in 1872, making it the first and oldest national park in the world.
The National Parks movement didn’t gain momentum in the UK until the 1930’s. As the interest in using the countryside for leisure increased it began to cause friction between landowners and countryside users. Public movements such as the mass trespass of Kinder Scout prompted the formation of voluntary bodies to take up the cause of public access to the countryside and, in 1931, Lord Addison chaired a government committee that proposed a system of national reserves and nature sanctuaries. It wasn’t until 1947 however that a committee led by Sir Arthur Hobhouse proposed the establishment of 12 National Parks in the UK.
In 1949 the first National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed with support from all parties. This enabled the establishment of the first ten national parks during the 1950s, mostly on poor-quality agricultural upland. A lot of the land was still owned by individuals or private estates, but with help from public bodies (like the Crown) and charities (like the National Trust) who supported and encouraged access to everyone.
As a child I was lucky enough to live within driving distance of both the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks. I remember spending many happy hours rambling with my family through the picturesque landscapes. I am convinced that this access to the countryside as a child cultivated my own affinity for nature and probably lead to me choosing a job working outdoors when I grew older.
Since moving to London 11 years ago I have been able to continue working outside in some of the many diverse ‘pockets’ of green space that exist in-between the built-up environment. I have come to appreciate their unique nature and the value they have for the many people, as well as wildlife, that utilise them. In some ways the preservation of green space in the city, where it is under intense pressure, is far more important than the preservation of green space in the countryside, where it is abundant. The complex network of ecosystems sitting side-by-side creates an intricate mosaic of land use with an enormous number of ecosystem edges, where the biodiversity is at its most abundant.
To make London the worlds first National Park City would be a simple, and cost-effective step with the potential to push London forward as a world leader in environmental policy, making it a city where people and nature are better connected.
You can go to http://www.nationalparkcity.london to pledge your support and find out how to help the campaign