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.
[Feb 2014 update - I've decided to do something about this! Please contact me if you would like to help.]
I am currently working with Kitson Kazynka and the team at National Geographic Kids to put the final touches to Mission: Wolf Rescue, the second in a news series of books that helps young people to learn about endangered animals. Working with some of the best wolf experts in the world, the book introduces a range of issues that wolves face and what we can do to help them.
While on Route 125 Seb and I completed an adventure to walk with predators in Cumbria. We were delighted to meet Maska and Kajika, two timber wolf pups, at Predator Experience. We explored a local wood with the young hybrid wolves and their handlers Dee and Daniel. the video above gives you a glimpse into our time with them. You can read the full adventure report here.
I am currently working with our team at Explorer HQ on a special Mission:Explore Summer Camp, a virtual festival of outdoor activities and explorations that are aimed at kids and families. Click on the map above to have an explore and pick a mission to attempt!
I was delighted to be asked to speak at TEDxEHL last month at Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne. I used my 15 minutes to argue that we are currently going through an Exploration Revolution, but that we’re not making the most of it… especially in schools. The talk takes place during the 125th anniversary of National Geographic, a year in which many people have been asking the society “what’s left to explore?“. This short video answers that question and more.
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.
Can you imagine living for a month entirely on things that can only be found within a day’s walk of your home? This is what Jess Allen did over the last month and I’ll be asking her why she did this on Twitter tomorrow night.
Jess describes herself as a “stereotypical dreadlocked-vegetarian-eco-feminist-environmentalist-caravan/yurt-dwelling aerial dancer, walking artist and academic hedgesprite with a horse” She’s currently doing a second PhD in performance, developing the practice of tracktivism with a President’s Doctoral Scholarship from the University of Manchester.
I’ll be asking Jess some questions about her work and experiences on Twitter using the hashtag #guerrillageography from 8pm (London time) tomorrow. I hope you can join us.
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.
After months of work it’s only a couple of weeks until Mission:Explore Food is officially published. Here are some spreads from the book that we’ve issued with our press release. I’m currently working on a Mission:Explore Food Expedition to promote the book that we’re mounting over 2012/13 to do missions and discover extreme foods around the UK. Details of this slow-food journey will be appearing on The Geography Collective blog over coming weeks.
There was an accident on the M4 today so we were forced to leave the motorway at Slough and take the A4 back to Ealing. When we got to Heathrow we saw a sign for Colnbrook and Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centres, my wife’s research focuses on women, migration, detention, health and home… so we thought we’d turn off and have an explore. It was not just the barb wired buildings that look like they could be logistical distribution centres for a supermarket that struck me, but their positioning to and relationship with their neighbour…
The building on the left looks like it could be a detention and removal centre with it’s concrete walls, small windows and… if you look closely.. two-way surveillance including CCTV cameras and loud speakers. This is actually the Sheraton Hotel at Heathrow Airport. The building behind it is Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre. Separated by just 50 metres, the ‘visitors’ of each of these dormitories are so close and yet ‘worlds apart’. It looks like they may even be able to look out of their (in)secure bedrooms to one another.
Looking north, in this picture you can see Colnbrook on the left (and west) and the Sheraton to the right (and east). Check out this map.
In their own words, here’s a quick comparison of these two different establishments:
“This centre, near London’s Heathrow airport, holds up to 383 detainees on behalf of the UK Immigration Service plus a further 20 people on behalf of HM Revenue and Customs. Sheraton Heathrow Hotel’s 426 guest rooms are warm, inviting, and designed for your comfort and convenience. Whether you choose a Classic room, Club room, or suite, you will experience the celebrated “ahhhhh” of The Sheraton Sweet Sleeper™ Bed. Since it opened in 2004 – ahead of schedule and under budget – more than 40,000 detainees have passed through the centre, making it one of the busiest removal centres in the UK. Most detainees are awaiting removal abroad, with more than 30 nationalities on average being held at the centre for an average of seven days. Our third floor includes dedicated Starwood Preferred Guest Rooms, as well as Club Rooms. Club Rooms feature King-sized beds, bathrobes, slippers and LCD screen televisions as well as upgraded amenities, free bottled water, complimentary wireless High Speed Internet Access and fitness center access. The short-term holding facility within the centre is used to hold people immediately after their detention by UK Immigration Service. They are usually only held in this facility for 72 hours. Colnbrook also provides a separate custody service to HM Revenue and Customs. Club guests have special access to the Club Lounge. A relaxing, upscale space, the Club Lounge offers complimentary breakfast, afternoon hors d’oeuvres and a variety of beverage options. Take advantage of the private Club Lounge where you can connect with friends, meet with your team, or simply relax by catching your favorite TV show. The majority of those detained are suspected of smuggling drugs inside their bodies into the UK.The centre was designed and built by Serco and operates on an eight-year contract (with the possibility of a two-year extension) with the UK Immigration Service. Need to get some work done? A copier/fax/printer and complimentary office supplies, internet access and computer stations are ready to go. We pride ourselves on providing the best possible environment for our detainees.”*