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Could London Become the World’s First National Park City?

Popularity of the idea reflects growing understanding that built environments are a part of the natural world too

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valley

The emerging explorer and guerrilla photographer for National Geographic, Daniel Raven-Ellison, wants to make London a National Park City. He came up with the idea after visiting the United Kingdom’s 15 national parks in 2013. During the tour he realized a very important habitat was missing from this list of parks: Urban areas. That’s what led him to start the campaign “Let’s make London a National Park City.”

More than 80 percent of the United Kingdom’s population live in towns and cities nowadays. Contrary to what it might seem, Raven-Ellison and his team believe these urban areas — which comprise a rich tapestry of gardens, rivers, parks, woodland, nature reserves, canals, meadows, streams, and lakes — have a deep connection with nature.

London is already one of the greenest cities in the world for its size. About 47 percent of the city is green. It is home to the world's largest urban forest. Its 8.6 million inhabitants share the city with 8.3 million trees, 13,000 different species of wildlife, 3,000 parks, and 1,400 sites of importance for nature conservation.

photo of St. James Park in LondonPhoto by Neil HowardSt. James Park in London, which is one of the greenest cities in the world for its size.

But the general definition of national park is not something that can be applied to a major city such as London. Nor is Raven-Ellison seeking the kind of regulatory powers for the city that traditional national parks have. “We’re looking to come up with a new definition for national park city, which will be a new kind of national park,” he explains, describing this as a semi-protected area, or a patchwork of formally and informally protected areas.

Growing populations create pressures on natural ecosystems that sometimes cannot be managed in protected areas and national parks. The real purpose behind making London a national park city, he says, is to connect people to nature. “One in seven children in London hasn’t been in a national park at all during the last year. This is a great opportunity to connect children to nature in the city,” Raven-Ellison says.

This involvement, he believes, could be crucial to saving ecosystems not just in the UK, but also across the world.

There are 7.3 billion people in the world. The United Nations expects this number to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, with 70 per cent living in urban areas. These urban areas will expand into territories that were not occupied before and that will challenge biodiversity of those areas.

The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) points at habitat destruction as the main threat to biodiversity. Currently, half of Earth’s land surface has been converted for human use. Meanwhile, scientists warn that a sixth mass extinction, caused entirely by human activity, is already underway. We need to have a better understanding of how to balance the needs of a growing population of humans and those of other species.

Vance Martin, president of the US wilderness protection organisation WILD Foundation, believes protecting large swaths of land is the only way to save endangered species. “Species need space,” he says. “We need large areas of land and sea interconnected in order for life to thrive on earth.”

But how many protected areas do we need? Currently, only about 10 to 15 percent of the earth is set aside as protected space for wildlife, but the ongoing extinction crisis shows this percentage is too low.

Renowned biologist and author Edward O. Wilson, who coined the term biodiversity, believes that to stave off the mass extinction of species, including our own, at least 50 percent of the planet needs to set aside as protected space. Wilson elaborates on this idea in his latest book, Half Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, which was published earlier this year and identifies actual spots where Earth's biodiversity can still be reclaimed.

This is what WILD Foundation’s Nature Needs Half campaign is trying to do: protect half of Earth’s surface for nature. Martin is careful to emphasise that protection does not mean lack of human activity. “You can have human activity in an ecosystem. The metric is not activity, it’s the impact of the activity,” he says.

But many conservationists argue that setting the goal at 50 percent is too high. Some claim the efforts should be directed to manage existing areas better. Harvey Locke, strategic conservation advisor for the WILD Foundation, thinks both better management and creating new protection sites are possible. “I don’t accept the argument that we can only do one or the other. That famous ‘knowing that we can’t do what is necessary’ is the kind of mind that enables extinction,” he says.

Other conservationists are more cautious about this approach. Heike Egner, professor of Geography at the Alpen-Adria-Universität in Klagenfurt, Austria, does not believe protecting 50 percent would solve the problem. She notes that while there’s been is a rise in the number of new protected areas worldwide, biodiversity is declining. “There is a mismatch between these two lines and I don’t know whether this will be solved if we reserve 50 percent for nature protection,” Egner says.

This poor performance of some protected areas is caused by two major factors, functionality and location. “Protecting biodiversity is only a small portion, the weight is much more on the economic and political side. Do you want to protect nature or do you want to bring this region to an international economic level?” Egner adds. The combination of both approaches would result in sustainable management of the area. Combining political, economic, and ecological aspects in one region and trying not to exclude humans out of nature is the secret, she says. But an incorrect location can undermine the management efforts.

Egner believes that many existing protected areas are not located where they should be. Designating new protected areas involves dealing with concerns and constraints, mostly from the people that live in the area. “What is done then is that the protected area will be selected in the places where they face the least anger. This concludes in protected areas not selected by the aspect of having the hotspots of biodiversity but by not having to deal with many angry people,” she says.

Chris Sandbrook, lecturer in conservation leadership at United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) World Conservation Monitoring Centre, too, says it's impossible to strictly project 50 percent of our planet. Conservation of 100 percent of the earth should be the target, and that, he says, could be achieved through a conservation strategy that focuses on biodiversity everywhere but provides different degrees of protection to different places.

But Nature Needs Half’s goal is as much about science as it is about relationship and values. “Nature Needs Half is a simple statement,” Martin says. “Any relationship that’s going to survive knows that you have to meet your partner halfway. Reciprocity.”

This relationship, especially, is one of the pillars of London National Park City. The connectivity between growing populations in cities and nature is a key factor for making people advocates for ecosystems and nature.

Jon Mobeck, director of the Wild Cities Project, explains: “The only way we can do this is by connecting people to nature where the majority of people live. As more people are going to live in cities, we need to extend more the connections with the natural world.” The expansion of human populations and urban areas will transform nature as it is known today, Mobeck says.

But then again, the very concept of nature as something pristine and untouched might not have ever been real. Martin Dallimer, lecturer of environmental change at the University of Leeds, says that the notion of entirely untouched places is probably false. This common understanding is driven by an education based on treating nature and humans as different spheres. “We’ve been trained and educated for so long to think that wild national parks were the only places where wildlife existed,” Mobeck says.

Although ideally a biodiversity hotspot would have no urbanization around it, that’s not always possible. “You can’t put a city in a wild area and say it is good for biodiversity conservation because it isn’t. But that doesn’t mean that within a city there shouldn’t be space for biodiversity to be alongside people,” Dallimer says. (Read “Where the Wild Things Are,” our special report on coexisting with wildlife in urban areas.)

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s “Guidelines for Urban Protected Areas,” affirms that the protection of natural areas cannot be abandoned to the pressures of urbanization, and recognizes the importance of growing cities to restore biodiversity. Different important spots for biodiversity around the world are near growing metropolitan areas. To protect those hotspots, cities need to think of themselves as part of a larger complex of wildlands. But when wildlife and people meet in an urban environment, conflict arises.

Sanjay Gandhi National Park in India is surrounded on three sides by the sprawling city of Mumbai. The metropolis is home for 18 million people, who share their everyday lives with all kinds of wildlife, including leopards. Living alongside big predators is not easy, and often conflicts arise. Regardless of the fatalities the animals cause sometimes, the inhabitants of Mumbai are learning how to live with the big cats. Jon Mobeck says this shows that the connection between wildlife and humans in cities is possible.

But learning to live with wild animals requires changing some habits and adjusting our lifestyle. The task is challenging, but the benefits of a healthier environment could make the effort count. In fact, a rising number of cities are welcoming protected areas within their boundaries.

In Canada, Rouge National Urban Park in the Greater Toronto Area has become the first urban park in the country. The park is under the protection of Parks Canada, which has added a new category for urban parks. Rouge National Urban Park is 22 times larger than New York’s Central Park and was formally established in May 2015. The park offers many facilities such as free maps and guides, to show the inhabitants of the city and visitors the high biodiversity they can find. (Keep an eye out for our report on Rouge National Urban Park, coming next week.)

This is precisely the idea behind a national park city. “What we’re trying to inspire is the notion that our existence in this planet is one where we share the planet with nature. It’s a balanced and reciprocal relationship,” Mobeck says.

As Raven-Ellison explained in a 2014 Guardian oped: “‘National park cities’ do not yet exist. There is no international agreement or legal definition that prevents London (or any other city) from becoming one. The page is blank and the opportunity is enormous — all we have to do is reach out and take it.”

Londoners, at least, seem to think this might be a good idea. A survey conducted by Lancaster University Management School confirmed that 85 percent of Londoners like the idea of making London a National Park City. With people already on their side, Raven-Ellison and their team need two thirds of London’s 649 electoral wards and the mayor of London to make the city a national park. Given that the city’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan, has already voiced support for the proposal, the capital of the UK could well be on its way to becoming a national park city by 2017.

Alba Charles
Alba Charles is a freelance environmental journalist currently living in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

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