You don’t have to go to the ends of the Earth to go on an extraordinary journey.
This September I will ascend the height of a mountain by walking up stairwells in buildings. Mountain’s are anything over 2,000 feet (610 metres) in height. As most floors in buildings are 10 feet apart, this means walking up 200 floors.
For the Step Up Skyline Expedition I am challenging myself to walk the height of Mount Everest (29,029ft) by exploring London’s tallest buildings. This is a creative way to explore London’s skyline and I am looking forward to meeting people who live and work in London’s highrise communities. The walk is going to give me an entirely new perspective on London not only because of the tall vantage points, but the experience of trying to gain access to so many different kinds of buildings.
I am doing this expedition from September 8th with the support of Ordnance Survey, Great Britain’s mapping authority. They are helping me find the buildings to climb, routes to take and places to explore. This geographic information is at the very heart of all the planning that we are doing. They’ve also whipped up this great mapping tool. Type in the number of steps that you have climbed and the calculator will show you on a map the name of a hill or mountain that you have ascended the equivalent height of.
You can do your own Step Up Challenge by walking the height of a mountain and you don’t even have to leave your home or school, all you need is a good staircase.
Take part by:
- walking 1 floor every day for 200 days,
- walking the height as a team. 200 people could walk 1 floor once, or
- walking the height of a named mountain.
You could walk the height of:
- Slieve Donard (850m), the highest mountain in Northern Ireland,
- Scafell Pike (912m), the highest mountain in England,
- Snowdon (1085m), the highest mountain in Wales,
- Ben Nevis (1344m), the highest mountain in Scotland, or
- something even higher!
Please connect with me on Twitter @DanRavenEllison if you are planning on doing your own Step Up Challenge during the week beginning September 8th. I would love to hear from you. We will be tweeting using the hashtag #StepUpMountain.
A few days ago I walked across London from Croydon in South London to Barnet in North London. Part of London Tree Week my aim was to pass through London’s urban forest by staying within some of the city’s most leafy wards. The route made use of the London LOOP, Capital Ring, the London Green Chain, Thames Footpath (very briefly) and the Dollis Valley Green Walk.
According to my FitBit between 5am and 10pm I walked 75km. Carrying a Canon 5D and a GoPro I took a photo every 3 seconds looking up to the tree canopy and from the photographs I made the experimental time-lapse film above. The occasional breaks that you see without any trees are open green spaces, not built-up areas. The only other break is as I cross over Battersea Bridge. Otherwise nearly every frame includes at least part of a tree.
There are over 8 million trees in London and by 2025 this will increase to 8.5 million thanks to the RE:LEAF campaign.
I walked the transect on the Friday of London’s half-term school holiday. Despite this when passing through London’s woodlands I saw deer, foxes, woodpeckers and snakes but not one single child. This echoes of the Last Child in the Woods, in which Richard Louvre “directly links the lack of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation—he calls it nature-deficit—to some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as the rises in obesity, attention disorders, and depression”.
What does this mean for London’s future?
George Monbiot rightly proposes that we rewild our landscape. We need to rewild ourselves too and creating a Greater London National Park would be a radical step in the right direction, especially for our children.
Following my blog post last November (What if… London was a National Park?) the Greater London National Park* website was launched at the start of last month. The website both mirrors official UK National Park websites and makes the case for London becoming the world’s first National Park City, a new kind of national park.
In the 43 days since, the provocative *Notional Park has been gathering supporters and building momentum. 37 organisations are Friends of the Greater London National Park* and this number increases each day. Since the project began, nearly 350 people have signed our petition to the Mayor of London. The plan is to submit the petition to the Mayor’s office in 2015.
To my surprise the Mayor’s office replied to the petition last week.
Thank you for signing the Change.org petition about turning London into the world’s first urban National Park.
The Mayor welcomes the call for more recognition of the importance and value of London’s parks, green spaces and natural environment. He commends the campaign organisers for their inventiveness in raising awareness of this issue by calling for a Greater London National Park. The idea of a ‘National Park’ is an engaging way of sparking debate.
However, he cannot support a proposal to create a formal National Park as he understands that the evaluation framework for determining potential National Parks effectively excludes large urban areas. Furthermore, he does not have powers to ‘create’ a new class of urban National Park.
Nevertheless, the Mayor, through his London Plan policy and programmes to improve London’s park and green spaces, is providing a leadership role on this issue. In particular he has produced the All London Green Grid framework which, amongst other things, is fostering sub-regional partnerships such as the Wandle Valley Regional Park. These sub-regional partnerships have objectives consistent with those being promoted by the Greater London National Park campaign and are endorsed by London Plan policy and supported through Mayoral programmes. In addition, the All London Green Grid partnership brings together representatives from the boroughs, other land managers and environmental NGOs to ensure a more strategic, integrated approach to the management and maintenance of London’s green infrastructure.
Thank you again for contacting the Mayor.
Public Liaison Unit
Greater London Authority”
I find this response highly encouraging.
We celebrate the inspired work that is already being done across the capital and see the All London Green Grid as a fantastic framework from which a Greater London National Park would work. The potential, though, is to create a unit, department, authority or association with the power to do much more than this across a wide range of sectors, just like national parks do elsewhere in the UK.
The Mayor’s office only really gives one reason why they cannot support the idea.
“He [the Mayor] does not have powers to ‘create’ a new class of urban National Park.”
I don’t think this is right.
To be designated as a National Park by Natural England, the Park would have to meet certain (highly subjective) criteria and meet both the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act and the 1995 Environment Act. In an international context, it would also need to be recognised by the IUCN who have their own Protected Areas Category System.
But we are not calling for London to become a traditional National Park. Being defined in the same way as traditional, remote and rural National Parks would devalue the importance of wilder parts of the planet that need to be thought about and managed differently. Equally, a city like London needs to have the freedom to evolve and develop dynamically in a way that is appropriate for its own needs.
I do not want London to become a traditional National Park.
London should become a National Park City, a new kind of National Park with the same spirit and aims as other UK National Parks, but with its own distinct definition, classification, criteria for qualification, leadership and management.
As it stands National Park Cities do not exist. There is no international agreement or legal definition that prevents London or any other city from becoming a National Park City. The page is blank and the opportunity is enormous – all we have to do is reach out and take the opportunity to create this “new class of urban National Park”.
I call on the Mayor to consider how London could become the birthplace of a new kind of smart city, a National Park City.
Show your support for a Greater London National Park by adding your name to the petition.
Earlier this week I worked with a small team to launch a website for the Greater London National Park*. The park is officially just a *Notional Park, but it is a serious idea and their are some very good reasons why the park should be created.
I appreciate that for many people the idea of London becoming National Park is unimaginable. As well as some of the technical complications, the fact London is so urban is highly problematic for some people.
In the popular and political imaginations parks are remote, rural and wild. When I explore London I can see the ‘wild’ all around me, both in the individual animals and plants that do not recognise human theories, categories and constructs, and those that not only survive, but thrive alongside, inside and around the buildings, infrastructures and cultures that we define as urban.
The words rural and countryside do not mean an absence of human influence or management, far from it. Even those British landscapes that look most wild have been shaped by farming, grazing of game and hunting of our island’s top predators to extinction.
It may be easier to have a relationship with nature if you live in a rural than an urban place, but that does not mean it is a more important one.
Driving into a city like London I think it can be easy for the eye to be drawn toward its bright lights and tall buildings. I live in Ealing, close to Boston Manor and Brentford. When driving into London down the M4 motorway you know when you are getting close to Boston Manor because the planes for Heathrow are stacked into the distance and descending rapidly to your right. Shortly after you drive under the Heathrow branch of the Piccadilly Line the speed limit drops to 40mph and you are lifted onto a flyover that elevates you over Boston Manor, Brentford and Chiswick.
Understandably most visitors that enter London this way see big buildings that form a gateway into the city. After seeing the headquarters of GSK, large elevated car showrooms and massive adverts, many people will then look further into the distance and get their first view of iconic buildings in the distance.
Much like a drive-through being an unhealthy way to consume your food on a regular basis, this fast-moving and skyline focussed entry into the city is an unhealthy way to view, think and make decisions about how ‘wild’ London is. This is a place of woods, waterways and historic parks. The roar of the motorway may be unavoidable, but it is pierced with the sound of bird-song, adventuring families and the rush of the River Brent and its tributaries.
Yesterday I took my son on a three hour adventure alongside the M4 to experience what all of the motorway traffic does not see.
Why? We went to explore the woods, fields footpaths, towpaths and tree-tops to see woodpeckers, heron, parakeets, coot, moorhen, swans, geese, ducks, gulls, rabbits, centipedes, horses, squirrels, grey wagtails, roach, busy ant nests, worms and much more.
As well as seeing all of these animals had time to try a couple of different rope swings that we found, play several game of Poohsticks and climb some trees.
Driving down the M4 or taking the tube into London, the woods and fields that surround you are on the periphery of your view, but this marginalisation is inverted when you are exploring off-road.
Our walk ended at Boston Manor, a Jacobean manor house built in 1623 that can be found in Boston Manor Park. You can see and hear the M4 flyover spanning the park from below, but driving above you would never know of its grounds including a lake, woods and ancient cedar trees.
The shadow of this part of the M4 is a rich place to explore. A meeting place of road, rail and canal, its human presence is clearly imprinted onto the landscape. But discover this place on foot and you will soon see its engaging natural histories too. The juxtapositions of motorway, city and wildlife certainly highlights and deeply contrasts their differences, but when looking closer it is clear that wildlives are willing to live more closely with people in our cities – if only we will let them.
Do you think London could be a National Park? If so, you can show your support for the idea here.
Over the last few months I have been working with an outstanding team on Crafty Explorers, an innovative project to improve the health of children aged 5 and below. A response to the Knee High Project design challenge that is run by the Design Council and funded by Guy’s & St Thomas’ Charity, Crafty Explorers is a friendly and affordable place for families to make clay creatures.
Other than boogly googly eyes all of the materials we use are natural and could be found for free with a bit of foraging. Acorn tops and pebbles make great eyes too though, so some are 100% natural. After making their crafty creatures we challenge children to complete missions with them in local parks. Challenges include going outside into green spaces to fly, climb, make a nest, find a worm, hide from pigeons and many more.
The pop-up shop that we opened to trial our ideas in Nunhead (Southwark, south London) was a massive success. Parents reported that we were having a positive influence on the physical and mental health of their children, as well as helping them to connect with nature and learn new skills. Many families came back several times over the six weeks that we were open and a few visited us daily for periods. This is high street, popular and engaging “learning outside the classroom” and “fieldwork” that we have linked to local schools, but is independent of them.
The building was provided by Southwark Council who are doing some great work to lift Nunhead’s village high street. With many central shopping areas in the middle of identity crises, we can see a role for Crafty Explorers not just in helping to improve the health of children, but in being an alternative centre for communities.
Helen, Carolina, Lesley, Tom, Alan, Pete and Mark are just a few of the excellent people from Explorer HQ, The Geography Collective and City Farmers who have come together to work on Crafty Explorers. A blend of great design, simple ideas, deep thinking and positive energy made the shop the success that it was.
The pilot shop is now closed, but the project lives on. This week we present our research, ideas and plans to the Knee High Project panels. With a blend of skill, hard work and luck we may just get through to the next stage of the design challenge. This will give us some added support to help bring Crafty Explorers to the next level.
A short time ago Seb and I completed Route 125 and the our last of 125 adventures across the UK by going free running through the capital. From the Lizard in Cornwall to Unst in the Shetland islands every adventure has been different. We have been wild swimming in waterfalls, gliding over Yorkshire, tracking lots of animals and sleeping in all kinds of strange places. The purpose of the project was to celebrate National Geographic’s 125th anniversary and hopefully inspire a few people to try some of what we have done. It would not have been possible without our Toyota RAV4 that not only powered our massive journey, but protected us from rain, snow, hale, midges, sun and cold.
I will be writing a number of blog posts over coming weeks that include tales and lessons from our time travelling around the United Kingdom together, but on the day that we completed our ‘family expedition’ I wanted to share two videos.
The first is of Seb and I going cliff climbing in Pembrokeshire. With the guidance of Jon Haylock, an inspirational leader who is Head of Adventure at TYF, Seb needed to abseil off a cliff down to the sea and climb back up again. Then aged 9, Seb was very nervous and had declared that he was very afraid of heights. It took a great deal of courage for him to step backwards off that cliff.
Over the following weeks I slowly introduced him to bigger challenges, sometimes getting it wrong but mostly getting it right. A few months after this climb and a couple of weeks after his 10th birthday I took Seb and one of his friends to Zip World in Wales. Perhaps more of a controlled ride than an exploration, this adventure involved zipping down a 1 mile cable at speeds of nearly 100mph some 500ft in the air. This second video includes the sound of Seb shouting with joy as he zoomed down the line. A massive achievement for someone who was afraid of heights earlier that year. I am very proud of him.
Over the last 6 months our relationship has strengthened massively and seeing Seb grow in so many ways has been highly rewarding. Very few people are able to see as much of our country as we have and we both feel very fortunate for having been able to enjoy it together. I am now looking forward to our next adventure…
Over the last few months I have visited all fifteen of the UK’s National Parks. Together they include mountains, meadows, moorlands, woods and wetlands, but as someone who lives and works in London I think there is a crucial habitat missing… an urban habitat.
What if London was the world’s first Urban National Park?
Britain’s built-up area physically covers around 7% of land and is home to a diverse range of (wild)life. The London Biodiversity Partnership has identified 15 different habitats in Greater London and more than 1,300 sites have been identified as being of value to wildlife (though I am sure there are many more). Casting a spot-light on amphibians and reptiles alone, nine of the thirteen species (common frogs, common toads, smooth newts, palmate newts, great crested newts, slow-worms, common lizards, grass snakes and adders) can be found within the M25. The Central London RSPB group has a list of 132 species of bird that you can find in London and if you know where to look you can find brown hares, otters and dormice too. Of course there is also an eclectic range of humans who together speak over 300 different languages along with their domestic pets and those less popular creatures including foxes, rats and pigeons.
London itself is very much a land of parks. At least 3,000 public parks, woodlands and gardens cover 140sqkm of London, but when you include private gardens and other green areas London’s total green space covers 628 sqkm or 40% of the city. In comparison to current UK National Parks at 1,572 sqkm London would be the 5th largest after the Lake District (2,292 sqkm), Snowdonia Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri (2,142 sqkm), the Yorkshire Dales (1,769 sqkm) and the South Downs (1,641 sqkm). Compared to its 628 sqkm of green space London would still be the 11th biggest.
National Parks in the UK are administered by their own National Park authorities. These are independent bodies that are funded by central government to:
- conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage; and
- promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of National Parks by the public.
There are a number of pan-London organisations working to improve the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the city and there are also organisations working hard to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of London, but I do not think they achieve what a National Parks status would. By rethinking, reframing and replanning itself as a National Park I can imagine a wide range of possible benefits for London. These could include improvements to biodiversity, architecture, green-ways, outdoor education, accessibility, how the city markets itself to the outside world and crucially, how the city sees itself.
By reframing itself as a National Park there could be a major shift in how London and Londoners think of themselves and how those outside London imagine the city. These include London as being a:
- large archipelago of green spaces
- wild destination to be proud of… right on (y)our doorstep
- space where you have the right to roam, explore, play and learn
- place where humans are recognised as animals and part of the world’s ecosystem
- place where buildings and systems are seen as an urban habitat that is shared with other life
- city that embraces domestic and feral animals as part of a city’s innate and historic ecology
- city where large number of inhabitants recognise and enjoy their own great outdoors
In the city such an effort could change the way that the next generation thinks of and values their urban park and what can be discovered inside it. Who knows what seeing (y)our entire city as a National Park could do for its and our development, psyche and outlook.