'Guerilla Geographer' Daniel Raven-Ellison spoke to the Society in the meeting rooms at Allies + Morrison about his vision to turn London into a 'National Park City'. Ben Taylor of Hawkins Brown went along to listen.
Dan Raven-Ellison is on a mission. Donning an EEG headset, the self-professed ‘guerrilla geographer’ has walked each of the UK’s national parks and many of its cities – including all 32 London boroughs – measuring the emotional affect of each landscape. Crossing fields, parks, motorways, high streets and wildernesses, his brain activity was recorded every step of the way. The conclusion of this techno-psycho-geographical traverse? Urban greenery can be just as stimulating a landscape as a national park – we just don’t realise it.
Opening with the now well-used primer that in 2007 humanity became a majority urban species, the talk began with a barrage of statistics charting the cost of our growing disconnection from the natural world – and its expensive. In lockstep with our increasing urbanity is our torpidity: obesity costs us £900m a year and one in five of the capital's children are overweight. Meanwhile, mental health conditions cost London £26bn a year. Both of these issues are exacerbated by limited access to outdoor activity (one child in seven hasn’t visited green space of any quality in over a year, we’re told) and could be greatly improved if Londoners had more frequent access to higher-quality outdoor space. We walk our dogs, Dan jabs, because if we don’t they get fat, unhappy and chew up the sofa; why think children should be any different?
For Dan, the antidote to these increasingly urban afflictions is literally on our doorstep, and we should be upping our dose. Some more stats: London already boasts 3.8m gardens, 3,000 parks, 30,000 allotments, two national nature reserves, 36 sites of special scientific interest and 142 local nature reserves, within which reside some 13,000 species of wildlife. All in all, 49.5% of the capital is covered by water or vegetation making it already perhaps the greenest city in the world of its size, but many of us chronically underuse it. Dan’s pushing for this to change.
It’s here, around half way through, that the talk turns to the campaign to make London the world’s first ‘national park city’. It turns out the process is already well underway – the campaign has the backing of Sadiq Khan and London will be officially reinvented next year. So what is a national park city? Unsurprisingly, it aims to take the ideals of a national park and apply them to London. Unfortunately, if you want to get onto the exclusive list of national parks, you have to be countryside. Under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, cities just aren’t invited. There’s nothing, however, to stop a city becoming a national park city as nobody has invented them yet – but it turns out that with all its ‘green infrastructure’ London already qualifies as one. What then is the purpose of a national park London? First, it’s to squeeze a little more green out of London, making 51% of the city green and blue. Then it aims to push Londoners to engage more with it, particularly in an active way. Finally, it aims to create a new identity for London to flaunt to other world cities. And what’s not to like? By grasping the literal and figurative nettle as a national park city, communities can take it on themselves to ecologically boost their neighbourhoods and do more walking, cycling, wild-swimming and gardening, the goal is to get Londoners to live healthier lives outside.
There is an enticing idea within this. Understanding London as a national park city pushes us to think beyond the common perception that in contrast to the “great outdoors” of the countryside, the city is somehow indoors. Dan’s vision is not just ecological conservation but regeneration: London can be something that it’s never been before. The capital instead becomes, to borrow from geographer Matthew Gandy, a kind of ecological simulacrum with its own richness. This is a discernible shift away from traditional conservation efforts, in which an emphasis on landscape authenticity makes ecological conservation subjacent to protecting an ideal of national romanticism – nowhere typified more than the national parks. Ironically then, the national park city is in a sense quite unlike the national parks themselves. Moreover, the ecological health of much of the national parks could itself be questioned given to the prevalence of extractive and erosive agricultural methods within. One might then ask whether the aspiration of being a national park is even too low a bar for London?
Where the national park city particularly differs from the national parks is in its lack of teeth of associated planning powers. Instead, it will ‘inspire’ a range of grassroots approaches to push communities to improve their own localities through workshops, events, gardening and rewilding initiatives. As a campaign, the call for communities to be doing it for themselves has more than a hint of Cameroon-era ‘Big Society’ about it. Despite the big promises of the talk, could it again be that the communities who might most benefit from skirmishes of guerrilla gardening are not those who have the resources or agency to do it themselves – especially given the campaign’s concern with updating London’s branding strategy. Post-Olympics, it is clearly par for any regeneration campaign to have a sophisticated marketing ident and social media strategy, and a London national park city is no exception. But the risk is that corners of London are turned into a form of neo-pastoral urban spectacle with few benefits beyond real estate speculation. Just look at the New York High Line. As a badge it is also faintly reminiscent of the Transition Towns that emerged in 2006. Pushing for suburban self-sufficiency in the context of peak oil and climate change, the Transition movement was criticised for amounting to little more than a stamp of approval for affluent towns that could already afford to subsist on organic, community grown produce to continue with business as usual with little proactivity. By labelling a city that is already half-green a national park city, the national park city feels uncomfortably similar – and questionably deserving of a city that breached its annual air pollution limit within the first week of 2018.
These things aside, the idea of London as a national park city does have an appeal. Dan has an infectious belief that we can ourselves find a reconnection with nature that can come from inside the city that makes you yearn for a wilder London. As with the long history of social and ecological movements, success will not be in ticking off every one of its objectives but in shifting the perception Londoners have of their city and to make a cleaner, greener, more biodiverse urban habitat.