Staff blog: The Making of a National Park City

John Muir Award manager Rob Bushby witnesses a growing campaign to make London the world's first National Park City

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On 21 September, London’s Royal Festival Hall played host not to a concert or a conference, but a community gathering. The esteemed venue has likely never welcomed such a mixed bag of speakers and performers on to its vast stage. Their purpose? To give a collective heave – along with an audience of the committed and the curious - to the campaign to make London the world’s first National Park City.

First, a wordless film to reframe us from the capital’s bustle. Prostrate ground-level bodies float mysteriously through woodland, occasional pointed knees sail across grass, barefoot walkers gently pushing them along a dolly rail track. Relaxation in the auditorium by osmosis. Then a more conventional short film of diverse talking heads explores the concept of why it makes sense to apply National Park principles to a whole city entity. Not only What if? but Why not?

Comedian compere Josie Long set the tone for a snappy evening (essential with 20+ contributions), picking up on a clean waterways theme. “I love river swimming. It’s like being slapped all over, in a good way. I’m like an otter, I am…”

A quiz informs us that there are more people than trees in London (8.6 vs 8.3 million), and of the aspiration to shift the capital’s current 47% to a majority of green and blue space coverage.

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Campaign co-ordinator Dan Raven-Ellison challenges us to collaborate, connect, share best practice and scale up – all necessary to “unlock the potential” of London and its natural assets. Judy Ling-Wong focuses on the make-up of the capital’s communities (“41% ethnic minority”), and Dame Fiona Reynolds reminds us that London is already beautiful. Quoting the founding father of the modern conservation movement – “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread” – her narrative thread links John Muir to National Parks to the idea of “bringing to the fore the things we care about but money can’t buy” and that these intangibles are essential for us to prosper and thrive.

The term ‘National Park City’ has prompted a vibrant debate around extending the traditional concept. This is welcomed by National Parks England, says Executive Director Paul Hamblin. Applying common principles (“And in London this would mean…?”) whilst recognising differences with rural National Parks is endorsed – not only by Paul but his hairdresser (!) too, sending a message to the event of “Go for it!”

Similar backing comes from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), recognising both the relevance of the National Parks Service centenary and the ‘secret conservation’ efforts of communities. From an international perspective, says Global Protected Areas Programme Director Trevor Sandwith, “it’s amazing to see this collective endeavour”, a great idea that could be exported round the world.

A series of speakers bring to the fore the sorts of activities and benefits a National Park City would amplify. Beth Collier, a specialist in nature-based psychotherapy, emphasises the value of nature to medical and mental health. It’s a form of neglect not to allow children to grow up with access to green spaces. Lara Maiklem introduces mudlarking (yes, larking about, littorally, in river mud) and her trove of nit-combs, rings, Muir-like casts of bearded men, and preserved medieval leather sandals.

A Tooting Popular Front of sorts is heralded by Sadiq Khan’s health advisor and Tooting GP, Dr Tom Coffey. The London Mayor is “a fantastic supporter of London becoming a National Park City”, not least as a means of bringing air pollution up the political agenda. It’s one of the biggest causes of health inequality that targets the poorest and spares the richest. Aims of 50+% greenspace, and more trees than people (“trees are natural scavengers of air pollution”) resonate.

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Poet Laila Sumpton brings birdsong and benches for sofas to “a clenched concrete forest”, inviting the audience to complete a concluding stanza on the theme of ‘We protect parks because…’ With his fire-bucket of wild flowers as a symbol of how he lives out his mantra “it’s down to all of us to be sustainable in our daily lives”, London’s greenest firefighter (officially, c/o a WWF award) Simon Jakeman invokes the classic Dr Seuss tale of The Lorax: “Unless you care, no-one else will”. He started out planting tomatoes in a bucket, transformed the fire station into a community hub by creating a flourishing roof garden, and has been seconded to take his inspirational story to 300 Watches, from Barking to Holloway. Dream it, Do it, Grow it, Nurture it, Let it fly – that’s his model. Indeed.

We’re told about #CharterForTrees by the Woodland Trust and invited to share a tree story, and reminded that London has 850km of rivers, canals and streams. Tens of millions of tons of sewage overspills into the Thames each year, says Andy Mitchell. He should know, he’s CEO of the Thames Tideway Tunnel sewer project. “We already have a river to be proud of. How much more proud we’ll be of a clean, thriving river.”

Economist Andrew Simms points out the irony of searching out Earth-like planets with potential for life-sustaining conditions - such as Wolf 1061, 14 light years or 267,452 non-light years distant – when we have an Earth-like planet a bit closer to hand. It’s even more important to re-imagine our relationship to the world around us in cities, he stresses: it’s where most people are concentrated, where power lies, where decisions are made. “We are the life we’re waiting to discover”, he says, “so let’s make the best of where we are”.

Phew, interval. Bollywood Brass Band provides the bookends and the filling for the event and is nothing if not accurately labelled. On with the show, and is that a casting call for Junior Ghostbusters? No, it’s the geared-up beekeepers of Charlton Manor Primary School. All the workers are girls, and the boys are really lazy, says Chelsea…referring to the bees. “We love looking after them. It means we get to experience nature every day.” Demonstrating that by no means all children are disconnected from nature, head teacher Rifat Batool (Tooting, again) shows the difference that creative and enlightened leadership can make. Gatton Primary School has no green space, so she sought out “our secret garden” just 5 minutes away, where pupils can see the changes in plants and wildlife through all the seasons. “It’s learning within the community, from the community; within nature, from nature” Rifat says, showing why the school with no garden of its own won a Royal Horticultural Society Gold Medal.

Photographer Jasmine Kamal-Pasha asks us to consider “what’s it like to be the fox?” and why litter is such an omnipresent feature of city life. London has been through a few redesigns – 350 years ago after the Great Fire, and after the Blitz. So why not rethink the city now, with more space for nature and in a way that changes hearts and minds? So asks Mathew Frith, Director of Conservation at London Wildlife Trust, evoking a historical sense of place through London’s names – Burnt Oak, Hampstead Heath, Wood Green, Southfields - and advocating for the 13,000+ species resident in the capital with no vote.

B&Q’s sustainability commitment is no flash in the pan. It represented the business case at the launch of ‘It's In Your Hands’ in 2004, Scotland's 25 year framework for action to conserve and enhance biodiversity (I have the souvenir t-shirt). Here, B&Q Sustainability Manager and winner of the Guardian Sustainable Business ‘Unsung Hero’ award Rachel Bradley talks of responsibly sourced timber, peat-free bedding plants, and the potential to influence millions of customers. UK gardens cover more acreage than all its National Parks, she points out.

On the home strait, and Peter Massini ditches his notes for a freestyle approach. As Principal Policy and Programme Officer for Green Infrastructure at the Greater London Authority, he’s well placed to reiterate the Mayor’s pledge that “I will make London a National Park City”. The challenge is how to achieve a greener, denser city in which infrastructure components are more blurred and integrated. As CEO of Ordnance Survey, Britain’s famous mapping agency, Nigel Clifford can be forgiven for pandering to the geographers present. To be fair, he also brings literary reference, quoting E.M. Forster: “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer.” And therein lies a key role for a National Park City – to not only engage heads and hearts towards common aims, but to help pull together disparate strands, sectors and agendas, on a capital city scale.

A series of 2 minute ‘talking heads’ films punctuate the evening - simple, articulate, accessible. All are well worth a look (see the @LondonNPC twitter feed), with one showing how anyone can bring more wildness into their lives, and another about making the most of London’s waterways particularly effective and. A suite of punchy inputs – Transition Towns (yes,Tooting), Belgian philanthropy, floating lidos, environmental art platform Human Nature – bring proceedings to a final Q&A, hijacked slightly by a Garden Bridge heckle and response. “I’m very happy to say that if I had the money to spend on the Garden Bridge, I would invest it in two hundred parks across London,” smiles Raven-Ellison “No! I’d invest it in a thousand parks, and fund the National Park City for 200 years.”

At its heart, the campaign aims to refresh and refocus London’s identity, stimulating a way of thinking, a way of acting, amongst visitors and residents. It wants to reconcile the same respect, care and protection that we have for the countryside with our cities. And whilst the evening leaves some meaty questions hanging – What exactly will it do? How will it be funded? How will it mediate competing interests? – the notion of London as a National Park City is one that is, to quote Josie Long “crackling with potential”, as this event undeniably demonstrates.

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View short films about Greater London National Park City here.