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.
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…