diamond geezer

 Saturday, July 21, 2018

Next year London becomes a National Park City.
Today sees the start of National Park City Week.

But what precisely is a 'National Park City'?
Turns out it's simultaneously a brilliant idea, and totally unfounded hokum.

When I first heard about the concept, a few years ago, I assumed there must be some internationally agreed definition. National Park Cities must exist around the world, I thought, and London was aiming to join them. But no, not that.

In fact a National Park City is meant to be a bit like a National Park, but in a city. Given that all the UK's other National Parks aren't cities, the idea seems somewhat counter-intuitive. But that's because this concept hasn't come from government, nor from any established environmental organisation, but from a former geography teacher from South Oxfordshire.

Daniel Raven-Ellison describes himself as a guerrilla geographer, and left the classroom ten years ago to "educate on a wider scale". His big idea started out five years ago with a petition to make London a National Park. Given how biologically diverse the capital is, he argued, why should urban wildlife have less value than rural wildlife? The petition failed, obviously, because London doesn't meet the criteria to become a National Park. So Daniel tweaked his vision and focused instead on the idea of a National Park City, a concept which which conveniently didn't exist until he invented it.
"A large urban area that is managed and semi-protected through both formal and informal means to enhance the natural capital of its living landscape. A defining feature is the widespread and significant commitment of residents, visitors and decision-makers to allow natural processes to provide a foundation for a better quality of life for wildlife and people."
Rather than being a well-defined framework of things, Daniel sees a National Park City as a movement to improve city life. A greater focus on the ecological would capture the public's imagination, put London's environment to better use, increase opportunities for tackling obesity, develop green space for future generations, encourage wildlife, improve biodiversity and nurture "softer, more empathetic" relationships between people and their surroundings. Call it green skies thinking, rather than administrative red tape.

For his next move Daniel worked with geography students at Queen Mary University to focus on what precisely a National Park City might entail, then held a public event on the South Bank to discuss possibilities with a wider audience. He crowdfunded a proposal in newspaper format which was printed 30000 times, then moved on to create a proper fold-out map showing London's green and blue in gorgeous cartographic detail. He walked in a big spiral round London to publicise his ideas, covering 350 miles and meeting up with local environmental custodians along the way. And then he skewered the politicians.

To validate his project, Daniel decided that he needed the support of councillors from two thirds of the 654 electoral wards that make up Greater London. Dedicated engagement over the course of three years convinced hundreds to vote in favour of National Park City status, but the total stalled short of the two thirds mark. So in March this year Daniel lowered his entirely arbitrary threshold to one half, announced that a majority of London now supported his idea and decreed that this provided legitimacy to move forward. If you can't meet a target, change it and move on.

Crucially he also needed the support of the Mayor. Boris had been unmoved, explaining by letter that while the concept was "an engaging way of sparking debate", he didn't have the power to create a new class of urban park. Sadiq has proved much more amenable, jumping on the idea as a means to add weight to his long term environmental strategy. The key principle is to protect and extend London's green space, which currently covers just under half of the capital, although that's a tough call when another of your priorities is expanding housing.

The Mayor's so convinced that he's now working closely with the National Park City Foundation and other partners towards the aim of declaring London a National Park City in May 2019. That's also why this week has been deemed National Park City Week, kicking off today with the London National Park City Fair at Conway Hall and continuing with over 300 events before the end of next weekend. Perhaps more amazingly, representatives from other countries are now taking an interest, and are over here asking questions, meaning this could turn out to be a global movement after all.

It's damned impressive for an unfounded concept thought up by a geography teacher to be officially embraced by the largest city in western Europe. An utterly meaningless title has somehow been given purpose by working with persistence over several years from the grassroots up. Londoners may or may not embrace Daniel's collective vision, connecting more deeply to nature and the city's outdoor heritage. But his unlikely environmental success story just goes to show what dedication (and a heck of a lot of chutzpah) can achieve.

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