London is known around the world as a green city. Underpinning this reputation is a rich palette of iconic spaces such as the former royal hunting grounds of the historic Royal Parks; relic countryside including the heaths, forests and common lands of Hampstead Heath, Epping Forest and Wimbledon common that have been protected as London has grown; and intimate green squares, such as Berkeley Square and Russell Square.
“Successive Mayors have recognised that protecting green space and greening the built environment is a vote winner” explains Peter Massini, former green infrastructure lead in the Greater London Authority’s Environment Team “it’s about health and well-being and dealing with the impacts of climate change, as well as conserving heritage and the natural environment.”
Over the past 20 years, urban greening has moved up the agenda of the successive administrations of various political allegiance that have led London’s City Hall and boroughs. London is governed by a two-tier administration. The Greater London Authority (GLA) develops the London Plan, providing an overarching vision and policy framework, which each of London’s 32 local boroughs have to incorporate in their own local plans and initiatives.
As of 2020, the main policy instruments used by the GLA for ensuring that a green infrastructure becomes part of London’s built environment are the All London Green Grid (ALGG), the Urban Greening Factor (UGF) and the repurposing of streets.
The ALGG was initiated in 2012 following significant local engagement to identify spatial opportunities and partnerships based on a geography that looked to the underlying ecology and landscape rather than administrative boundaries. The result is an extensive framework and set of maps identifying existing and proposed sites to create a multifunctional network of green and blue spaces across all of London. The UGF is being introduced by the new London Plan due for adoption by the end of 2020. It is a planning policy tool aiming to increase the quantity and functionality of green infrastructure in the built environment by setting minimum standards for new development projects. The repurposing of streets was an emerging theme of the 2018 Mayor’s Transport Strategy. It promotes healthier, greener streets to encourage much more walking and cycling and was made into a priority by the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic to support a socially-distanced economic recovery of London’s high-streets.
Each of these policies are ambitious and rely on powerful mechanisms that fall well within local government’s remit. Such a policy framework is essential in order to get the major actors – boroughs, developers, public institutions and private investors better aligned. However, they are not evocative or inviting to the 8.5 million people who live in London. It is in attempting to address this gap that London’s National Park City movement offers refreshing insights into what it takes to create green cities and a possible innovative model for others to emulate.
“The need for rapid change to address the climate emergency, the public health emergency, and the ecological emergency, are all things that we know a better relationship with nature can achieve” explains Daniel Raven-Ellison, the geographer and environmental campaigner who imagined and successfully led the campaign to turn London into a National Park City.
With an increasing proportion of people around the world living in cities, Daniel Raven-Ellison believes that reconsidering and enhancing the way city dwellers engage with nature needs to be a priority. While there are a lot of good initiatives underway, they are often too technocratic (think government-led initiatives) or culturally and socially closed (think nature conservation grass-roots organisations) to provide an effective means to engage a wide audience. Daniel Raven-Ellison contends that “national park thinking” can be a great asset to address these short comings.
In England, the statutory purpose of national park status is set out in the 1949 National Parks Act. The Act states that such designation is there to “conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area” and “promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the park by the public“. When he launched the London National Park City campaign in 2013, Daniel Raven-Ellison challenged conventional perceptions by asking: “What if we took these ideas and applied them to London?”.
Far from seeking to apply Britain’s complex legal national park status to its largest metropolis, the London National Park City campaign promoted the idea of creating something new, something that doesn’t exist: a National Park City. The aim was to capitalise on the powerful image and achievements of the world’s national parks to inspire people to make London greener, healthier, wilder, and get more people outdoors.
When asked to provide more definition around what a National Park City is, Daniel Raven-Ellison provides a four-part answer: it’s a place, a vision, a community and a way of organising.