The urban explorer and ‘guerilla geographer’ is leading the campaign to make London a national park city
Interview by Susan Gray
Why are you attracted to exploring urban landscapes?
In 2012 I walked across all of the UK’s national parks. It became clear that while moorland, forests, mountains and other habitats are represented within our family of national parks, a major urban area is not – despite the fact that it is recognised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and by Natural England as a distinct landscape. It’s very different to other types, but isn’t any less valuable. I also walked across all the cities in the UK and realised how accessible they are. The majority of urban residents live within a 30-minute walk of their city centre, yet cities are full of cars. If those journeys were made on foot, it would make a tremendous difference to the environment and public health.
What is the London National Park City campaign?
The concept is my own ‘invention’, although it’s not a new idea. We have enclosed and protected green spaces for centuries. Urban nature conservation is in the DNA of town and city dwellers, from private gardens to sprawling nature reserves. Britain has already exported the idea of urban nature conservation around the world, so the only contribution I am making is stressing that the whole of London’s urban landscape should be part of the National Park City. That means all the parks, gardens, rivers, industrial sites – a recognition of the collective value of the whole urban landscape.
What difference would securing National Park City status make to Londoners?
Imagine a London in the near future that is radically greener. London’s natural environment already provides a range of highly valuable services. Biodiversity in the natural environment improves our mental and physical health. Access to nature is good for our children, stimulating their development. The National Park City campaign also wants to celebrate what’s already been achieved in London’s long history of creating and dedicating green spaces, by institutions like the royal family, the Greater London Authority, the borough councils, the Corporation of London and the Metropolitan Board of Works when they created the royal parks and other green spaces.
What does the campaign seek to achieve?
London has some of the best walking in Britain, thanks to the Capital Ring, the Thames Path and the Green Chain. But these could be better signposted, championed, and used by a greater diversity of people. Our vision is to encourage Londoners to make more of that fantastic infrastructure. Our new London National Park City Map is the first full scale map showing all of London’s strategic paths, parks and green spaces. It reveals that 49.9 per cent of London is physically green and blue, i.e. parks, gardens and rivers. If every Londoner was to make 1 square metre of grey space green or blue, then the majority of London would be physically green or blue. So lots of people doing small things across an urban environment can result in something extraordinary.
Do you think it will enhance London’s international image?
London is well known as a financial centre, but we are also an ecological centre. However, ninety five per cent of London’s visitors only go to the top 20 attractions, 18 of which are in Westminster and Camden – the other two are in Greenwich and Kew. Yet we have 3,000 parks in London, and hundreds of galleries and museums. There’s an opportunity to disrupt the tourism market and encourage more visits to outer London.
How can Ramblers help?
If you live in London, contact your local ward councillor to back the campaign to make London a National Park City. But also, plant more and play more. If we are planting more and playing more we are living the aims of the National Park City. Planting more means creating more green space or helping to keep spaces green. Playing more means walking more. Ramblers could go on an urban walk along one of London’s great trails.
How can we encourage investment in urban green spaces?
We need more natural capital accounting, which places a value on green services by showing how access to green space reduces the effect of income inequality or mental illness and its burden on the NHS. Then we start to get some interesting numbers. With the National Park City campaign I want to generate more value, since even small spaces can offer great value to a wide range of people. London suffers from air and water pollution, which harms biodiversity, but nobody is paying for it. We must rethink our culture and health budget, so through general taxation we’re properly recognising their value.
Is the proliferation of Privately-Owned Public Spaces (‘POPS’) a cause for concern?
Sometimes the issue of land ownership is conflated with the access to quality natural spaces. I don’t like the privatisation of public space, and I don’t like rules that prevent people from doing things they should be able to do in such places. More interesting than who owns the land is what I am allowed to do on it. Am I allowed to sleep there? Do I have the freedom of assembly? Am I allowed to skateboard? Am I allowed to party, barbeque or make a film? I would like to see a new map that enshrines our right to roam across urban areas.
How can walking tackle social and environmental challenges?
Personally, I find that walking creates the time to think and reflect, to see and meet others, and share spaces with people in an equitable way. I use walking meetings a lot – you get better ideas and more collaboration. Reducing our use of cars and polluting forms of public transport clearly has less external costs to people’s health too.
What are your favourite cities?
Cities that really stand out are Bristol with its architecture, density of nature reserves and street culture. Glasgow is another surprising city: held by the hills, and as you walk across it there are beautiful views. I enjoyed walking through Stoke on Trent. It has large spoil heaps from its industrial past, but it’s also a designed city with great street furniture. Swansea also has beautiful woodlands, wetlands and a great beach.
Tell us about an urban walk you enjoy in London...
To get a sense of the National Park City, get the train to Crystal Palace Park. Walk through Dulwich Hill and then Sydenham Woods, a London Wildlife Trust nature reserve. Visit the Horniman Museum and One Tree Hill in Honor Oak, the site of a famous mass trespass which helped keep that space free. Continue to Nunhead Cemetery, which is fantastic for stag beetles. From there, walk through Peckham and join the Surrey Canal, now a green route taking you to Burgess Park. There’s a green link to Elephant and Castle, and from there to the River Thames. That walk would give you a cross section of London’s best wild spaces, views and culture.
Find out more and visit nationalparkcity.london
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE…
- COUNTRY WALK? Exploring Hampshire’s wooded hangers in the South Downs National Park.
- CITY WALK? Across Edinburgh from north to south, following the Water of Leith.
- VIEW? The London skyline from One Tree Hill in Honor Oak Park, south-east London.
- KIT? Either my mobile phone or blister plasters, put on before your walk, not after!
- SNACK? My wife’s vegan chocolate brownies.