London: the first National Park City?

Interview with Daniel Raven-Ellison, guerrilla geographer and creative explorer

Susan Miles, Editor

Dan Raven-Ellison
Daniel Raven-Ellison



You'd like to make London the first National Park City. Can you expand on your vision?

A Greater London National Park City would be a new kind of national park. It would be inspired by and share similar aims to the existing family of 15 national parks, but also be distinctively different and appropriate for London's urban living landscape. It would not have any formal planning powers, but it would have the power to inspire and inform people to make London even greener – physically, psychologically, politically, emotionally and technologically.

Geographically, where would the park begin and end? And how would it be constituted?

We are not asking for Natural England to designate London a national park. Through community-level campaigning, we are declaring London a National Park City from ward level upwards. Once two-thirds of London's 654 wards and the Mayor of London have declared their support, this will give us the mandate to legitimately create this new kind of national park. To look after the National Park City, we intend to create a partnership of individuals, organisations and authorities that are working towards a shared set of aims.

To start with, we are campaigning for London's political area, including all 32 boroughs and the City of London. However, eventually I would like it to reach out to the M25 as this is a visible and psychological boundary. It would also link the National Park City into key neighbouring areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and include a wide area of greenbelt.

What significant changes might we expect to see?

I think that many people will actually start to see the city itself in a new way. A step change in thinking about London's environment will be one of the most significant changes. In part this will be brought about by working with schools to massively scale-up outdoor play, teaching and learning.

In terms of the physical landscape, I could give you many examples but here's just one. A remarkable 24% of London is private gardens, but according to the London Wildlife Trust one- third of these have been paved over. This paving makes communities less resilient to climate change and water hazards, the run-off into drains affects the cost of treating our water and there is an opportunity cost too, as the gardens are not available for food growing or wildlife. Incrementally over time, the National Park City will shift culture so that less paving and more green space is the desirable aim.

Would you say that an urban green space is as valuable and relevant as protected countryside?

I think that some urban green space can be far more valuable than some countryside. However, I don't think we should try and argue that one is better than the other, but nor should we automatically assume that rural green space is better in terms of quality, biodiversity, recreation, access or inclusion than urban green space.

You say that a National Park City would not have the same planning powers as other National Parks. What would it actually be able to do?

Power takes many forms. A National Park City would focus on the power of learning to inspire schools to teach more about the value of London's natural heritage, encourage more people to volunteer to protect our natural heritage and stimulate new kinds of green business activities across the capital in a range of sectors. Of course, this is the kind of work that the National Parks have already been doing for decades in addition to meeting their statutory planning commitments.

How would this new entity relate to existing management of parks and other public green spaces?

We propose that a National Park City Partnership is governed, in part, through something called the Bank of Good Ideas. This will be a set of evidence-based and contextualised actions that people can take to improve life in the capital. What goes into the Bank of Good Ideas will be decided by what we are calling Communities of Action. Each community will have its own expertise and be able to recommend ideas, practices and activities, which, if lots of people take them up, could make a big difference. Replacing concrete drives with sustainable urban drainage systems is a great example. Some will be innovative and new, others will be schemes that are already in place and working successfully. What goes into the Bank of Good Ideas will, in part, determine how the National Park City Partnership invests its time, expertise and resources. Individuals, communities and organisations will be able to look to the Bank of Good Ideas for inspiration and will be able to receive support from the National Park City Partnership to make them happen. For example, the Royal Parks may well contribute to what goes into the Bank of Good Ideas, or benefit as a result of a city-wide campaign on an important issue. Either way parks will continue to manage themselves, but will be able to benefit from the National Park City's additional resources and scale.

If you could go forward in time, how would you see the cityscape change and what would the effect be on Londoners' lives?

Sir Terry Farrell has described this idea as one vision to inspire a million projects. It's a challenge to us all to bring about large-scale and long-term change through many small and achievable actions. I can imagine individuals and organisations across the capital re- imagining the potential of their gardens, streets and communities, and, as a result, a new patchwork of interconnected growing, wildlife, education, business and recreation projects unfolding across the city.