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.]
On the 28th and 29th of May I’m going to go an expedition to circumnavigate the London Borough of Ealing. I’m curious to discover what’s at the edge of the borough. Feel free to join me.
I took these pictures during a walk from Arrivals at London Heathrow to Fleet Street in central London. The walk was part of the Urban Story mass exploration of London that I organised last weekend. While the group I was walking with were inspired to keep their eyes open for ‘arrivals’ I decided to look for evidence of ‘departures’. Anything arriving is simultaneously departing, but each of these events and places caught my imagination as having or being departed.
I enjoy listening to music and sounds to intentionally evoke feelings about a place. On the London Underground I will sometimes use my iPhone to record one place only to intentionally listen to it another. Doing this can be highly disorienting to the point where ‘phantom’ sounds force me to stop and make sense of what’s reality. It’s not too different from being in a shop and being apologetic to a mannequin.
Most recently I’ve taken to listening to the soundtrack of Sunshine while navigating the tube. Directed by Danny Boyle the score for the film was created in collaboration between John Murphy and Underworld (who I understand improvised much of it while watching the film). This is essentially a sci-fi horror film about an attempt to stop the Sun from going out by flying a nuclear bomb into it. For those on the ship that will deliver the bomb the journey is far from easy. As the brightening ‘sunshine’ grows so does its beauty, draw and intensity.. but bad things happen on Icarus II, not least the trauma of dealing with the remains of Icarus I, which led the previous and failed mission. This is a tense and psychological film and the soundtrack reflects this.
Stepping into the underground, descending the escalators, boarding a train and listening loud to tracks like ‘Kanada’s Death’ and ”Pinback Slashes Capa” can be more the unsettling. While I know that I’m in a relatively safe environment the whispers, tense chords and creeping acoustics always force me to tighten up. Underground trains are essentially spaceships that journey through dark space and eventually into sunshine.. they move in and contain political spaces that exist to provide freedom but have been exploited to instill fear through violence.
While the score for the film has been composed for something (un)real it has a very real impact on my (un)enjoyment of travel and one that I suggest you give a try…