London Signs Up as First ‘National Park City’

The city has commited to upping its greenspace to 50 percent and making the urban landscape healthier, greener and more beautiful by 2050

No pizza rats here Getty Images

Cities are, often, dominated by weeds and pizza-stealing rodents. But it doesn’t have to be that way. London, for one, has just signed on to be the first National Park City, a project in which municipalities manage their urban landscapes with some of the same principles that guide national parks.

Stephen Leahy at National Geographic reports that Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, along with several organizations and individuals signed the London National Park City Charter today. The document commits to improving the lives and well-being of people and wildlife by improving the natural environment of the city. This doesn't mean London is being declared a national park or is even seeking that designation. It just wants to have some of the same qualities as a park.

Tom Edwards at the BBC reports that as cities go, London is already downright park-like. It has a lower urban density than many other major cities, a large number of urban parks and waterways and a pretty healthy canopy of 8.4 million trees. It is also home to 15,000 species. The charter aims to build on that by protecting and improving existing greenspaces and connecting them together.

Charlotte Beale at the World Economic Forum reports that in practical terms, that means trying to reach the goal of turning 50 percent of the city into greenspace by 2050. That can be achieved by asking residents to convert empty lots and yards into gardens, planting more trees throughout the city and even cutting holes in garden fences so hedgehogs can roam freely. Adding green roofs to existing buildings is also part of the plan. Already, about one-third of Greater London is green space, meaning the city doesn’t have as far to go as Paris, which is just 10 percent green space, or New York with weighs in at just 27 percent.

One way to help achieve its goal is by pairing development with conservation. London is expected to add some 2 million new residents to its current population of 9 million by 2040, meaning it needs thousands and thousands of new homes. Home developers can play a role by surrounding new homes with parks or nature reserves.

Inspired by the aims and values of the world’s national parks, the London National Park City is "fundamentally about making life better in the capital through both small everyday things and long-term strategic thinking,” self-proclaimed “guerilla” geographer and founder of the concept Daniel Raven-Ellison says in a press release. “We’ve been doing that in London for centuries, which is why London is so green and diverse, and why we can make it a National Park City today. It’s about lifting our ambitions; going further to make the city greener, healthier and wilder; improving our mental health; cleaning our air; making the city richer in wildlife; freeing children to play and meet friends outdoors again; tackling the climate crisis and bringing more joy to the city."

Raven-Ellison developed the concept six years ago, Emma Marris at National Geographic reports, making the case that London is one of the most biodiverse places in the U.K. and deserved to be seen as an important reservoir of nature along with more pristine wild places. “Rainforest national parks are very different from desert national parks,” he said. “A city is very different from both of those but it is not necessarily less valuable.”

London won’t be alone in its quest to become more national park-like. Newcastle upon Tyne and Glasgow, Scotland, are interested in becoming National Park Cities. The goal is to have 25 cities around the world pledged to the program by 2025.

It’s not really a hard sell. Timothy Beatley, an urban planner at the University of Virginia who works with “biophilic cities” that are embracing their natural attributes, says many cities have already woken up to the idea that greening and improving natural connections makes urban life much better. “The basic idea is that nature in cities is not optional but absolutely essential to leading a happy, healthy, meaningful life,” he says.

More and more studies show that exposure to green space can be important, reducing stress, helping psychiatric disorders and improving cognitive processes. There’s also evidence that being around a natural setting ramps up the immune system.

Currently, London is celebrating its commitment with the National Park City Festival, an event lasting through next weekend, which includes 300 events including outdoor performances, a musical installation at Epping Forest, swimming and paddling sites throughout the city as well as walking tours.

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