London as a National Park City – Fantasy or Genius?

July 30, 2015

Think of London. Chances are, most people immediately think about historic architecture like Big Ben, landmark skyscrapers like the Gherkin, or popular retail areas like Oxford Circus. Very few think about the almost 50% of the city that is green, from Hyde Park to its many Pocket Parks. But a recently launched campaign is aiming to change that by pushing for Greater London to become the world’s first ‘National Park City’.

What would this mean in practice? After all, a National Park (like the Lake District or the North York Moors) is generally seen as a rural area of green rolling hills: a far cry from London’s urban bustle. In addition, as was pointed out at the launch event on the 14th July, most policy wonks just don’t understand the idea. To them, a National Park is a legally protected area with planning powers. A National Park City, however, is very different. There would be no legal protection, no planning powers, and no taxpayer money would be required.

Instead, it is a vision for London’s politicians to aspire to and that Londoners can work towards. It is a different way of thinking about the city that could help increase its attractiveness and competitiveness.

Whilst it is just a label (rather than a legal designation) the campaign has gathered a lot of support. A poll of Londoners showed that 85% supported the idea, and the London Assembly and more than 100 organisations have declared their support. Given that around 80% of England’s population is urban, National Parks England sees the campaign as a useful way to publicise England’s National Parks to a population that is increasingly disconnected with nature.

London already has its All London Green Grid (ALGG), which is one of the first attempts at considering London’s green spaces across its 33 local authority boundaries (it splits London into eleven ‘framework areas’, each supported by an area partnership). However, start talking about the ALGG at a dinner party and the vast majority of people’s eyes would glaze over: it’s not exactly a compelling topic of conversation. Start talking about London becoming a National Park City, however, and it sparks conversations and debate.

That is not to say that the ALGG should be replaced by the National Park City idea. The ALGG is a policy framework, whilst the National Park City is a grassroots campaign; there is an important place for both. However, there is no reason why the ALGG could not share the aim of London becoming a National Park City to help capture the imaginations of its politicians, businesses, residents, workers and visitors.

As well as rebranding the ALGG, there are other ways that it could be improved. Currently, it is just a wish list of projects, and does not even include all green spaces (such as vegetated domestic gardens, which make up 14% of London’s area). It needs to become an evidence-based strategy document.

Imagine if the ALGG had a map showing the areas of London that suffer most from particular environmental challenges, such as air pollution and flooding. This could encourage local community groups, NGOs and businesses to develop ideas to help solve those challenges and meet local needs at the same time (a similar approach has already been successfully piloted in Birmingham). For example, if an area is prone to flooding and the local green space contains a tarmac or asphalt basketball court, the community could propose a permeable artificial surface that still allows play but also improves drainage.

The combination of a powerful vision, an evidence-based strategy, and a nested governance approach could allow London’s green spaces to form a coherent ‘green infrastructure’ network across (and even beyond) the city. This could provide significant environmental, economic and social benefits.

These are just some of the ideas that Policy Exchange is exploring in a forthcoming report on London’s green spaces. In the end, wouldn’t it be wonderful for London’s green spaces to be as iconic and memorable as its architecture?

This blog post originally appeared on BusinessGreen

Join our mailing list