Over half of the world’s population (55%) live in urban areas with that share expected to grow to over two thirds by 2050. In North America the figure rises to over eight out of ten. And, an astonishing one in eight of the world’s urban dwellers live in just 33 megacities. But in a world facing climate breakdown cities present particular problems. With so many hard surface areas they become hostile hot spots during heatwaves, and prone to flooding during heavy rainfall, not to mention that many cities are coastal and vulnerable to sea level rise. Cities are also energy intensive and consume a lot of resources.
Unless deliberately designed otherwise, they can also separate people from nature, denying them the multiple health and well-being benefits of contact with green spaces, plants and other animals. And that creates yet more problems, because people with less direct experience of nature are less likely to care about taking action to protect the very environment that we all ultimately depend on. With the climate emergency worsening and urban populations rising, cities are becoming the frontline for change, and meeting the challenge to shift rapidly how we imagine, organise and act in urban areas. But a new initiative is developing which invites people living in cities to see them as places for nature, and to question how we live and behave to bring city dwellers and nature closer together.
It’s called the National Park City movement, and it aims to bring the environmental, conservation and well-being aims of already existing national parks right into the heart of modern, urban living. Launched in London 2019 after a consultation with over 50 countries on all inhabited continents, this movement draws from the tradition of national parks globally and uses it to include an entire capital city for the first time. This is about integrating people and nature. The aim is a park with no hard borders that encompasses daily life. It harnesses the simple idea that when entering a national park, people expect to behave differently. They know to take notice of nature and to be respectful of it. Alongside that, there is a raised expectation that the environment you move through should be green, and add to your quality of life.
According to Dan Raven Ellison, who came up with the idea in 2013, rapid transition is at the heart of this concept. There are a myriad of small things that are already being done in cities to mitigate against climate breakdown and move toward a zero carbon future, but bringing them together with a shared vision makes a major shift in thinking possible.
The National Park City Foundation (NPCF), World Urban Parks and Salzburg Global Seminar have, through an international conversation, developed a Universal Charter of National Park Cities. This document sets out key National Park City principles, ways of working and a framework for engaging people with it:
Their aims are to work together for better:
National Parks are generally dynamic, living landscapes that offer areas for people to access nature in a relatively controlled way. They also underpin the local economy, create jobs, and offer opportunities for recreation that improve people’s health and wellbeing. They are extraordinarily important resources, managed at relatively low cost. Using National Park language to refer to a city constitutes a shift in thinking – urban spaces have traditionally been thought of as dirty, polluted, grey concrete environments that do not encourage freedom to roam, enjoyment of nature or outdoor pursuits. To describe a whole city as a park challenges our stereotype of a city and encourage us to think of it freshly.
In reality, many urban landscapes are richly woven tapestries of greens and blues made up of gardens, rivers, parks, woodland, nature reserves, canals, meadows, woodland, allotments, streams and lakes. London, for example, is 1,572 km2 in area and home to:
Nature, of course, has its own, intrinsic value, but in a very real way cities with more green space can also provide what gets called ‘ecosystems services’ – doing things that human societies benefit from, without which we would have to do things expensively, and artificially for ourselves. In London, England, for example, Clapham Common, a large area of green space, provides £10 to £45m of benefits, based on an estimate from Lambeth Council. They include provision of recreation, aesthetics, physical and mental health, neighbourhood development, noise regulation and air pollution reduction, all of which bring a range of social and environmental benefits.
For all its advantages, the National Park City initiative also has a relatively low, direct financial cost. With a full complement of staff, including representation in all 32 London councils and the City of London, it is estimated that the Greater London National Park City Partnership is likely to eventually cost £4 million a year to run – about the cost of maintaining a single, medium-sized secondary school. If this were to be replicated in all major cities, it would seem to offer extremely good value for money in pursuit of carbon reduction and a range of the sustainable development goals (SDGs), delivering key social and environmental benefits.
Cities and parks mix in various ways and for diverse purposes. Some countries have vast spaces for parks in areas of wilderness. Others link cities closely to parkland on their outskirts, while some are so highly urbanised that they have to bring nature within the confines of an existing built environment. In most places, there are ongoing discussions about how to satisfy the often different priorities of people and wildlife.
Sweden, Canada and Singapore are good examples of efforts to bring parklife into an urban areas and conurbations – and in managing the questions and conflicts that arise. Making space for nature can be seen as taking space – and even resources – from people where services are stretched and housing is in high demand. And the traditionally “tidy” aesthetic of many cities, where grass must be clipped short, trees pruned and weeds removed, is not good for wildlife.
The term “national park” was coined in the US in the 1870s, to encapsulate a policy vision aimed at building a sense of national identity and strengthening collective values through the enjoyment of nature. The first area to use “national park” in its creation legislation was Mackinac Island, closely followed by Australia’s Royal National Park and Yellowstone Park in the US.
Britain’s national parks were planned as part of post-World War II reconstruction, underpinned by progressive policy ideals, promoting outdoor recreation as part of a holistic national health policy and creating cultural and economic flows between the cities and the countryside. National parks were imagined as scenic natural areas with a connection to surrounding cities. To that end, Britain’s first national parks were located beyond – but within reach of – major industrial centres. The Lake District, The New Forest, the Peak District and the North York Moors all function in this way.
Stockholm was one of the first cities to incorporate a major green haven at its heart – The Royal National City Park, which spans more than ten kilometres but starts a stone’s throw from Stockholm’s city centre. The park enjoys a rich plant and animal life, harbouring over 800 different flowering plants, more than 1,200 species of beetle and approximately 100 species of nesting birds. It is also home to one of the largest collections of oaks in northern Europe.
In the Canadian city of Toronto – the largest urban area in the country – the traditional idea of a park has been taken to a new level with Rouge Park, which spreads north for 15 kilometres from a narrow wedge that meets the enormous Lake Ontario. The park grew gradually from 24 square kilometres of provincial and municipal land in 1995 to its current 47 square kilometres. In 2011, the federal government announced plans to take it over, with a promise of $143.7 million over 10 years to set up Canada’s newest national park – and first urban one – to encompass 58 square kilometres – a 23 per cent increase on its size at the time. When Parks Canada released a concept for the proposed park, more than 10,000 people offered input to it during four months of public consultation.
Singapore’s attempts to green their city state can be described by their vision: “let’s make Singapore our garden.” The first Garden City Action Committee was formed in 1970 and over the years, the city’s mission has evolved from creating a Garden City to creating a City in a Garden. The aim is an island-wide green network of nature reserves, parks and gardens, park connectors, tree-lined roads and other green areas – a biophilic city in a garden. To help create a better living environment in partnership with the community, there are already over 1,400 community gardens.
The Brazil Tijuca National Park, which was established in 1967, is located in the State of Rio de Janeiro. It covers an area of 3,953 hectares and comprises the first replanted forest in the world: its forests are the result of the first major reforestation project in the world, started in 1861. After almost total destruction of the forest for the production of coal and coffee planting, the water sources that supply the city began to dry up. Then began a major process of expropriation of coffee farms and replanting of more than 100,000 trees. Today the park is an integral part of the huge and growing conurbation of Rio.
London was able to launch the global initiative for National Park Cities because of its growing status as a world city, its track record in using this status to great effect with the Olympics in 2012, and because of the existing strength of the National Parks as a concept in many countries around the world.
National Parks are often places of great pride for countries and many are famous globally – such as Yellowstone Park in the US, the great game reserves of Africa, Hardangervidda in Norway, Peneda Geres in Portugal, Guilin in China, Belluno Dolomites in Italy – the list goes on. Most of these sites are places where people go to be immersed in nature, where wildlife is protected and where it is understood that humans must live alongside the rest of the natural world. However, the idea of living this way in a city is something new, because cities are traditionally thought to be places created by and for humans alone.
The surprising thing is perhaps that wildlife thrives in cities and the rise of urban wildlife watching illustrates this: peregrine falcons are as at home on cathedral spires as in forests; foxes are way more plentiful in cities than in the denuded countryside; birds are drawn to the diversity of city gardens; and even some of our greatest ancient trees are in city spaces. So perhaps it is less surprising that cities could flourish as National Parks themselves.
The National Park City initiative was launched in 2013 and has carried out its work through crowdfunding. The rest has happened through partnership, raising awareness and by convincing people to consider an idea that is not new in its aims, but in its geography: “We’re pretty excited about the NPC concept at the IUCN,” says Russell Galt, Director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Urban Alliance. “I was confused at first about it. IUCN has no category for it.”.
They have also captured the imagination of people from highly diverse backgrounds and communities who do not feel able to visit far away National Parks, but who are often already doing things locally to make their city a greener, healthier, more wildlife friendly place. Londoners are filling balconies and yards with wildlife-friendly plants, growing vegetables and fruits in gardens and public spaces, covering concrete and brick walls with ivy, cutting small holes in fences to let hedgehogs roam the city, or simply sharing stories about the hidden gems of nature they discovered in the city. “More than 250 organizations in London are involved. Nine in ten Londoners support our aims of making the city greener, healthier, and wilder,” Raven-Ellison says.
There is already plenty of evidence to show that greener environments are better for us. The benefits include reducing air, water pollution, and flooding to absorbing carbon and cooling ever warmer cities. A recent Danish study found that childhood exposure to green spaces, including urban nature, reduces the risk for developing an array of psychiatric disorders during adolescence and adulthood. Japanese studies have shown that being in nature for a couple of hours—so-called forest bathing—enhanced our bodies’ natural killer cell activity.Other studies have documented stress reduction, reduced mortality, and improved cognitive development in children after spending time in nature. It is known that people living within 500 metres of a park or green space are around 25% more likely to achieve recommended levels of regular physical activity.
One challenge for the National Park City concept is that it is very easy to do but needs a shift of attitude. It doesn’t need formal recognition – just some education and conversation to get the idea to take off, but it could redefine what it means to live in a city. Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK will also be launching its campaign for that city to become the UK’s next National Park City and Glasgow in Scotland has already started its campaign. The NPCF is aiming to name at least 25 National Park Cities by 2025 and is already in discussion with other UK and world cities to help them gain NPC status.
The National Park City initiative was launched in 2013 and has carried out its work through crowdfunding. London, for example, is 1,572 km2 in area and home to: