Going Green: How London became the World's First National Park City

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Aug 20, 2020
by Mira Merchant
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Going Green: How London became the World's First National Park City

Salzburg Global Fellow Daniel Raven-Ellison reflects on the seven-year journey to designate London the world's first National Park City Daniel Raven-Ellison at Salzburg Global Seminar in 2017 (Photo: Ela Grieshaber)

Seven years ago, Salzburg Global Fellow Daniel Raven-Ellison set out to make history. A self-proclaimed guerrilla geographer, his idea was simple, even if execution would prove to be the opposite: he wanted to make London the world's first National Park City.

Inspired by the family of national parks both around the UK and the world, a National Park City is, in many ways, very similar. National parks seek to "promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of their special qualities by the public, conserve and enhance their natural beauty, wildlife, and cultural heritage, and seek to foster the economic and social well-being of local communities within them."

A National Park City aims to achieve the same goals – within an urban context. According to the website, "a National Park City recognizes the value of urban life, habitats, landscapes, people and culture, and seeks to apply similar purposes to a whole city."

There is an obvious difference between the primarily rural settings of national parks and urban settings of national park cities. Still, as Raven-Ellison explains, the presence of urbanization does not necessarily imply the absence of biodiversity.

"When you think of national parks around the world, people will think about deserts or moorlands or rain forests… But the world's fastest-growing habitat is urban areas. And London is home not just to Homo sapiens as a species, but home to about fifteen thousand other species of life, and [it's] actually a relative biodiversity hotspot compared to the countryside around it."

From 2013 onward, Raven-Ellison oversaw the London National Park City campaign from conception to execution, as it grew from an idea to a citywide movement. From the beginning, the benefits were undeniable. Raven-Ellison cities the "wealth of evidence" that shows the many benefits green and blue spaces have on people: better mental health and well-being, increased happiness and productivity, quicker recovery time after trauma or illness, and more.
 
While humans certainly stand to gain some of the more tangible benefits of increased urban green and blue space, wildlife and geography also benefit.

As Raven-Ellison says, "Green space isn't just important for people, and the wildlife we share the city with, but actually for the landscape, for the fabric of the city itself. So in terms of the city's ability to deal with surface water flooding, river flooding, water coming off the oceans, ability to be cooler in the summertime and warmer in the wintertime."

Despite the benefits that may seem obvious to those in the environment sector, Raven-Ellison faced a notable obstacle in his journey: he needed to convince people that the issue of a national park city was even important enough to warrant attention.

"When people are very busy with Brexit, with COVID-19, with weird decisions being made by politicians… having the cut-through to be meaningful enough in their lives that they want to engage with the National Park City idea and bringing to life where they are [is crucial]."

London National Park City needed support from both politicians and the general public. As a grassroots movement, it was especially important to have public support.

"There are millions of people in this city… who, if they were given the right opportunity, would love to step forward and think of themselves as leaders… But you need to find the right way to speak to people in the right moment, in the right voice…making that invitation for someone to take up that leadership position."

Raven-Ellison was able to find plenty of support through his time at Salzburg Global Seminar. A participant of two programs in the Parks for the Planet Forum multi-year series, Raven-Ellison described his time in Salzburg as "catalytic."

He says, "The National Park City the idea from the outset was very disruptive, and I think that it's easy to forget. Now, with all the evidence we have… about the importance of a better relationship with nature in urban environments, it's easy to forget how disruptive the idea was seven years ago… And Salzburg help[ed] in a number of ways, both in terms of providing some authority around embracing the idea and its possibilities and then incubating it in a way that helped to help to get it gain traction with some key people who then helped to take the idea forward."

Last month marked one year since London was designated the world's first National Park City. Raven-Ellison has no plans of slowing down.

In five years, he hopes to see twenty-five national park cities around the world. In ten years, he hopes to see a wealth of evidence showing the cities becoming greener, healthier, and wilder, with more citizens who regard the national parks cities as part of their identity. And in fifty years, he hopes the National Park City movement is no longer revolutionary, but rather, the norm.

"The dream would be that people are living longer, healthier, more prosperous lives where they're doing less harm to nature on the planet around them… When you look down on these cities from space… [they] are far more verdant and green and alive with life as well."