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 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.
Last year I was fortunate to be named as one of National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers. This year National Geographic is celebrating its 125th anniversary so I thought I would do something to say thank you and mark this important year.
I started to think about what my ideal adventure would be… one that would not only allow me to explore in creative ways, but one that my son could join me on. An adventure that would mean us spending quality time together. Time to explore, play in and learn about our country… it did not take that long to come up with a simple idea that would result in massive amount of exploring…
The idea? To create #Route125, a route to adventure across the UK that includes 125 family friendly adventures. 1 adventure to celebrate each year of the National Geographic Society across the UK. It has taken a big effort to plan the adventures, with an average of 10 in each of the 12 UK regions.
Working closely with National Geographic Magazine UK and Toyota RAV4, I’ve already completed 25 of the 125 adventures. Seb and I have driven in our RAV4 around Northern Ireland climbing, swimming, scrambling, hiding and boarding. In England we’ve been hill rolling down ancient downland and searching for medieval graffiti while in Scotland I’ve been down a stunning gorge and fishing for Salmon.
Every adventure includes a different way of exploring and is suitable for most families. This weekend we are going to Northumberland to search for puffins, surfing, tasting ice cream and engaging in some expeditionary football.
The new site for Route 125 (http://www.route125.co.uk/adventure) went live today. You can track our progress on the blog, see our plans on the map and follow us on Twitter on @DanRavenEllison, @RAV4UK and #Route125.
Seb and I are both super excited about the journey ahead of us. We have already had an incredible time and can’t wait to hit the road again.
Here is the current draft of 125 adventures that we will be doing. Many will have a little twist to them, like when we climbed Slieve Donard. After climbing the 850m from the sea to the top of Northern Ireland’s highest mountain we took out my MacBook and started to compose track about our adventure. We’re still working on it!
Angle for fish at sea
Bag ruined castles
Bodyboarding offshore waves
Boulder jumping in the Peak District
Build a woodland den
Canoe a loop
Cave under Wales
Circumnavigate the centre of Titanic’s dry dock
Climb a coastal cliff
Climb Ben Nevis
Climb Slieve Donard
Collect 60 shades of green
Collect leaf rubbings
Crawl through an abandoned mine
Crawl through the Cotswolds
Create a long-bow
Dance at a festival
Descend into a Neolithic flint mine
Dig for fossils
Discover a shipwreck
Discover Merlin’s Cave
Downhill mountain board
Drive the Pilgrim’s Way
Explore Adventures Fen
Explore remote places for wildlife
Find Britain’s 6 reptiles
Find the Loch Ness Monster
Fly a kite in one of the windiest places in Britain
Follow a ghost train
Forage for seafood
Free run through the city
Glide through the air
Glide through the Tomb of Eagles
Go on a wild-goose hunt
Hide from Badgers
Hideout in the woods
Horse ride in the hills
Hovercraft over land and water
Hunt for weeping angels
Husky Trek through the moors
Image a British castle timeline
Jump off giant steps
Kayak through the Capital
Launch from a runway
Longboard down an abandoned railway
Make a micro-museum
Make land art
Make our own bread
Map animal sightings
Meet Scotland’s Big 5
Metal detect for treasure
Mountain bike through Cannock Chase
Navigate to geocaches
Observe mammals in the Malverns
Paint a landscape (with mud)
Pan for Gold
Patrol Hadrian’s Wall
Photograph British Birds of Prey
Pick Your Own adventure
Potter in the wild
Punt the Cam
Quad bike trek
Race a pigeon home
Raft down white waters
Rebuild a castle
Ride tandem across a forest
Ride the River Wye
Roll down ancient hills
Run across an entire city
Run through mountains
Sail across a flooded village
Sail the (not so high) seas
Scale Scafell Pike
Scoot across Newcastle
Scramble up scree
Scuba dive into a hidden place
Sea kayak with wildlife
Search for flotsam and jetsom
Search for Medieval graffiti
Segway through forest
Skip stones on the sea
Slackline through the woods
Sleep on a beach
Smell the city
Snorkel through wild waters
Spey cast for Salmon
Spot seal pups
Squeeze through pot holes
Stand behind a waterfall without getting wet
Stand Up Paddle Board through a gorge
Surf along the coast
Swing across a river
Swing through the trees
Take a scary walk
Taste ice creams
Top a volcano
Travel through Shakespeare’s time.
Tree climb in the rainforest
Trek a garden trail
Trek to Britain’s highest waterfall
Uncover hidden dragons
Visit the 4 corners of Britain
Wakeboard across a Loch
Walk across quicksand
Walk in the trees
Walk Wark in the Dark
Walk with predators
Whale spot at sea
White water tube downstream
Wild camp in nature
Wild swim in a waterfall
Winter gorge walk
X-treme pogo stick downhill
Yacht through the sea
Zip across an abandoned quarry
You can explore our plans in more detail on the http://www.route125.co.uk site. We’re looking forward to sharing our adventures with you… maybe we’ll meet you on Route 125?
The latest edition of Ecological Urbanism is terrible doorstop. The first edition is 655 pages, smells good, weighs 2kg and keeps most of my other books in their place. Despite its strengths, it can’t do video… something the latest version on the book can do. The original hardback book by Mohsen Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty features hundreds of photos that I took while walking across Mexico City, Mumbai and London for Urban Earth, a project in urban exploration that I started in 2008. Out today, the new version splits the book into digestible chapters and includes over 15,000 photographs within the 3 Urban Earth films that I made by taking pictures every 8 steps while crossing these massive cities. You’ll find the films in volume 2, Anticipate, and are accompanied by a short piece of text that Kye Askins and I wrote. I’m delighted to see the films come to life in the book. I hope you enjoy it.
The Ecological Urbanism project has a Facebook page that you can follow here.
A couple of days ago I asked a few people on Urban Earth and Twitter if they would be interested in taking part in #Urban100, a project that I’m calling an open expedition because it’s going to last a year and anyone can join in. The idea is simple, to collaboratively explore urban places by taking 100 photographs over a 500 metre walk. Using the same stop-motion approach that I used in the Urban Earth films we’ll be able to create films that zoom through the urban landscapes, creating a unique representation of our urban habitats.
We’ve asked that all photos submitted #Urban100 are under a creative commons license so that anyone can edit their own versons of the films.
So far collaborators have said that they’ll be doing #Urban100 explorations in Bristol, Bangkok, London, Glasgow, Falmouth, Toulouse, Porto and Edinburgh with more being added and suggested all the time.
I recently watched Step Up Revolution and was struck by what an awesome case study this film would make in geography classrooms. Some people may be fooled into thinking this is just a film about dance, but Step Up Revolution is a classic geographical (if fictional) study of people, place, power, planning and protest in cities. When a strip in Miami is threatened with topocide and gentrification “The Mob” fight back to protect their home. Guerrilla Geography is rife in this blockbuster, as the dancers move from ‘performance art’ to ‘ protest art’, intentionally occupying spaces to make their point and exert their power. It’s full of beautifully geography-based quotes too, as the characters debate identify, culture and more.
The love interest plot in the film revolves around Sean and Emily, two dancers who have fallen for each other but who are separated by their differences in wealth. To top that it’s Emily’s dad who is trying to redevelop the area and Sean is one of the leaders of the “Mob” that is uprising. Near the end of the film they dance together to the song “To Build a Home” by The Cinematic Orchestra, a beautiful song that with its use in this film draw parallels between finding a sense of home in both place and people… in this case, with each other through dance.
The film ends with Emily’s dad (the property developer) saying “Maybe there is a way to build-up this neighbourhood without tearing it down”. What a classic problem for any classroom of students try and tackle.
Last week I had great fun helping to make this live Guerrilla Geography video with National Geographic Education for Geography Awareness Week. What do you think of it?
I love this short film by the Light Surgeons.
…when your exploring on a skateboard.
I’m very excited.
For a while now I’ve really wanted there to be a playful way for local children to engage with a particular historical geography of our local park. It’s called Blondin after the famous tightrope walker who crossed Niagra Falls on a 1,100 foot rope with a man on his back. The rope itself was just 7.5cm wide. This amazing effort happened back in 1859 and has recently been brought up again after Nik Wallenda made a similar crossing on a wire. Blondin lived by the park and as well as the park taking his name, two local streets are called Blondin and Niagra.
Last night I attended the Northfields ward forum in west London where I live. I had contacted my local councillor with with an idea last week and he had suggested that I brought it along to the meeting. I proposed to the crowd that we should have a line drawn 1,100 feet through the park on the path so that people can attempt to replicate his success. A sign would also be needed to explain the line, it’s heritage and to suggest some challenges to complete on it. To my amazement the idea went down very well, a vote took place and now we’re looking at designing the line into the park.
I’m excited to see how this line will act as a path for psychogeographical journeys as adventurers fear falling off the line and are drawn into other times and places. Children, families and other explorers will imagine and experience a blend of the river, waterfall, distance, sound, balance, drop, context, history, fear, playfulness, courage, geographies and pasts as they venture down the line and feel fragments of this inspirational story.
I can’t wait to try and walk the line myself.