Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Don’t scoff—London’s landscape of scruffy beauty deserves celebration and protection.
If a plan officially proposed in London on Wednesday goes ahead, I won’t need to travel far to visit the U.K.’s newest national park. I won’t have to hire a car or buy train tickets. In fact, I won’t even need to leave my apartment. That’s because the suggested site for the new park is London itself—all of it. Yesterday, the London Assembly passed a motion supporting in principle the creation of a Greater London National Park, a single body covering the whole city, celebrating its many green spaces. The Assembly’s provisional approval has pushed an idea that’s been building momentum for a while far closer to reality.
This wouldn’t be your average national park, of course. The park’s role would not be to control or restrict planning through any additional powers. It would essentially be a coordinator and cheerleader for London’s green assets. A single park could combine conservation efforts and volunteering opportunities currently divided among 33 local authorities and provide a better platform to promote Green London to visitors.
Certainly there are criticisms, namely that the national park plan won’t offer a whole lot that isn’t being done already. And yet, the park body could still be a real help when it comes to addressing key environmental problems such as rising water levels, coordinating efforts to strengthen and green watercourses, and replacing paving with absorbent surfaces where possible. Internationally, it could also help redress an imbalance that sees far-flung, unpeopled landscapes as inherently more valuable than the green spaces accessible to people living in cities. As the Campaign’s leader Daniel Raven-Ellison writes:
“Just because the traditional notion of a national park is a rural conservation area, why shouldn’t urban habitats, with their network of green belts, parks, gardens and waterways be afforded the same reverence? Urban life is just as important as remote rural life, and city dwellers, habitats and landscapes deserve to be conserved, enhanced and promoted too.”
Stirring talk indeed, but it still might cause some readers to do a double take. After all, this is London—capital of concrete and nest of fumes—that we’re talking about, not some pristine idyll. But before you scoff, read the figures. According to the Greater London National Park campaign, the U.K. capital is verdant and teeming with non-human life. It has 13,000 species of wildlife living within its borders. Its hedges, trees, and ponds are teeming with life. The city has 144 nature reserves within its limits, 1,300 sites recognized by local government as valuable to wildlife, and two wetlands specially conserved for migrating birds. An estimated 60 percent of the city’s area is actually green or open space, or covered by water.
A lot of this land isn’t even made up of parks. London’s unusual leafiness comes partly from being seamed almost throughout with gardens. Lurking behind every row house, rich plant life is sheltered from wind by masonry and turned lush by constant damp. Railway lines grown dense with thickets cut corridors of green through rows of houses too, where commuters can see fox heads poking up among the cow parsley and Buddleia as they rattle by. This landscape of scruffy beauty deserves celebration and protection. It can be just as memorable and formative as any Walden Pond or highland crag.
It was in London, after all, that I grew up skinny-dipping under the stars in woodland lakes (admittedly, we had to jump a fence or two). It was here that I spent teenage evenings smoking while precariously balancing on a long-suffering beech tree. It’s here that I’ve seen herons picking away at canal-side reeds, moorhens skidding on thin ice, and grey gardens turning pink and lime-green with flocks of feral parakeets. Whether or not the plan makes it, London has already been a national park to me all my life.
Top image available via CC License.