On Tuesday 24 February 600 people came together at Southbank to Reimagine London and ask “What if we made London a National Park?”. In this extended article the award-winning writer Lucy Anna Scott shares her day at this important event.
“I hope you’re all in an imaginative mood,” enthused Daniel Raven-Ellison, founder of the Greater London National Park campaign, as he opened the Reimagine London event at Southbank Centre this week.
But picturing Greater London as the world’s first National Park City doesn’t require a huge leap of imagination these days.
What started out as the brainchild of geographer and explorer Raven-Ellison just less than a year ago is now rapidly maturing into a campaign that has a life all of its own. And the 600 participants – who attended a packed programme of talks, debates and activities to explore the concept of London as a National Park – were proof of the momentum behind a campaign that’s swept the likes of Zac Goldsmith, Chris Packham and Robert Macfarlane along with it.
As Andy Mitchell, chief executive of Thames Tideway Tunnel said on the day: “Our city’s natural environment and open spaces are some of its greatest assets and form the backbone of one of the world’s best cities to live in, work in and visit. That deserves recognition.”
Among the chorus of participants from diverse walks of London life who joined the event to voice their backing for the movement were school kids, politicians, heads of leading charities and a world famous architect.
National Park experts from around the UK were also on site to flag their support, including Alison Barnes, chief executive of the New Forest National Parks Authority – who declared that the dynamism of the campaign showed London was defining the zeitgeist.
“This is a movement that’s happening not only in the UK. There are people in cities all over the world expressing the need for this connection. This will be a big theme over the next decade and London is in a very strong position to take this forward,” she said.
Pioneering for London and the world
Barnes told the audience that they were “global pioneers” in defining the concept of National Park Cities. Outside the lecture theatre participants showed it was a responsibility they were taking seriously as contributions to the event’s “Wall of Ideas” blossomed.
Here delegates posted their own ideas about what the aims of National Park City status should be. Creating places where people could pick flowers, giving kids on housing estates roles to look after their part of the National Park and joining green space corridors were just a handful of ideas scrawled on brightly coloured post-it notes before the first coffee break.
Back in the theatre Peter Massini, urban greening team leader for the Greater London Authority, reminded participants why National Park City status was crucial. “Two weeks ago London’s population reached its peak, it could be 13 million by 2050. That’s something we have to address and deal with. How do we accommodate that growth while retaining and protecting London’s vast and beautiful natural environment?” he asked.
Out in the foyer an exhibition gave participants some visual examples of the vast natural space Massini outlined. A photographic project of green space across the city’s 33 boroughs – snapped by 132 undergraduate geography students – showed the wealth of blue and green spaces in the capital; from wild roses in Hounslow, water lilies in Greenwich to heron’s fishing on the River Brent.
Photo montages were accompanied by illustrative statistics, revealing treasure troves of green space amid the most urban places. Over a fifth of the City of Westminster is green space as is Hackney, Camden and Southwark – the exhibition by School of Geography at Queen Mary University of London and the Greater London National Park revealed.
“Full of potential”
Massini told the audience that policy was changing to improve access to nature and manage the city’s green spaces. But he said National Park City status would help make those policies “more relevant”. Judy Ling Wong CBE, honorary president of Black Environment Network, went further however – calling the Greater London National Park movement a “rare event”.
“This idea is rare because it is big enough and full of potential and it is grounded,” she said.
“This room is full of hard working environmental organisations, representatives of communities and young people. This is a big idea because it goes beyond pure nature conservation and to social wellbeing. That is why we’re inspired. If London can crack this it will be a tremendous gift to an urbanising world.”
Out in the foyer, speakers on the forum stage highlighted ways in which National Park City status would support the efforts of existing organisations. A Greater London National Park, they argued, would help connect activist groups fighting food waste, support river restoration projects and initiatives to encourage housing associations to dedicate more space to growing food.
Next to the stage a giant black and white map of London – provided by Ordnance Survey – was laid on the floor. And over the course of the day handfuls of adults and kids alike swapped their shoes for crayons so they could crawl over it and colour in their favourite open spaces.
Exhibitor James Baker, community assistant for Project Dirt, the social networking platform for projects with green and social benefits, said the organisation’s 10,682 members would benefit enormously from a Greater London National Park City: “It will engage people who aren’t aware of the opportunities in the city already. It makes the idea that London has huge amounts of natural environment to offer more accessible and shows people it is all on their doorsteps.”
As participants filed back into the Purcell Room for another session they passed award-winning illustrator Tom Morgan-Jones, hard-at-work drawing some of London’s commonly spotted birds – including tawny owls, goldcrests and buzzards.
“The campaign makes sense. It changes mindsets,” said Morgan-Jones, the table and the floor around him littered with reams of paper displaying his ink sketches of birds – as full of life as any of the creatures soaring the skies over the Southbank.
Tackling London’s relationship crisis:
National Park status would rekindle a love of the great outdoors across generations, Pip McKerrow, chief commissioner for Girlguiding London & the South East told the Purcell Room audience. While nature-based psychotherapist Beth Collier, founder of Wild in the City, said it would address the “relationship crisis” Londoners are facing.
“We’ve increased the time we spend in the virtual space but we have less time connecting to what is real,” she said. London needed National Park status to “promote the city’s natural world as a medicine that people can self prescribe,” added Collier.
Sitting listening in the audience was Nicky Gavron, chair of the planning committee for the Greater London Authority. Taking the microphone during Q&A she reminded all how increased pressures on open space from development could further intensify the “crisis” of connection that Collier so articulately described.
The audience was treated to a range of very different perspectives during the next session. Mathew Frith, director of the policy and planning unit at the London Wildlife Trust, warned that the city’s open space was “under threat like never before” as “illiteracy” about the natural environment deepened.
Meanwhile AECOM’s director of sustainable development Ben Smith reported that the company was supporting the campaign with research into the value of green infrastructure and how National Park volunteers could work to enhance that.
While Stuart Brooks, chief executive of the John Muir Trust, outlined the importance of the “collective state of mind” that National Park City status would engender, helping it to achieve its aims. He added: “It helps everyone to make an immediate positive connection before they discover it. But the badge isn’t sufficient. Only when we discover will we connect and truly value. We only protect the things we value.”
But 15-year old Shanice Antoine, a student of Langdon Park Secondary School, was arguably the highlight of the day, rallying participants with her passionate speech on the value of green space to the city’s youth.
“I’ve lived in Tower Hamlets all my life and it is getting more cramped by the minute. The spaces we have are not looked after or respected. In the eyes of the younger generation London’s natural environment is scarce. A National Park would make the city healthier for families, encourage outdoor activities and teach people about sustainability,” she said.
As the day progressed the Wall of Ideas echoed Shanice’s views, as participants posted notes stating that the involvement of school children in the National Park was imperative and called for a halt in cuts to park budgets.
The debate moved into political territory for the last session of the day as architect Sir Terry Farrell, design advisor to the Mayor of London and chair of the Thames Gateway Local Nature Partnership took to the stage alongside representatives from Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and the Green Party.
National Park status would provide the UK capital with an “aspirational benchmark” that would transform London’s image to the world, said Farrell, who added: “The best way to protect the countryside is to make the city an offer people can’t refuse.”
Prioritising walkers and cyclists on roads would help National Park aims by knitting together habitats across the city and improving quality of life for millions, concluded Caroline Russell, who represents Highbury East Ward for the Green Party.
While citing concerns over lack of protection for green spaces, Stephen Knight, elected Liberal Democrat councillor and London Assembly Member said the National Park campaign had come at “the right time” for raising the city’s natural environment up the political agenda.
“There are eight million people and eight million trees today. As London’s population grows we must ensure the number of trees grows at the same rate.”
Echoing Knight’s concerns Kevin Davis, council leader of Kingston upon Thames council and Conservative Party member said: “Important as preserving biodiversity and green space is, we must make sure the city is fit to live in. Without biodiversity, history and culture London becomes a dry place. A Greater London National Park has to be in place; only then will we have a recognition of London as a green city.”
As the sun set, and participants made their way to Festival Pier for a boat trip on the Thames, they were left in no doubt as to how to add to the momentum. “Sign a petition, make a noise. Contribute to our consultation and become a friend of the Greater London National Park campaign,” said Raven-Ellison.
“Ninety percent of people think this is a great idea but ninety percent of people think it won’t happen. Let’s work together to turn this around. Stay connected. Let’s grow this thing,” he urged.
The campaign may have begun life as a gutsy idea with a big imagination – but as this event proved making London a National Park is entirely possible, and what happens next is a decision that belongs to all of us.