Escape to a wilder city: London as National Park

A couple of weeks ago I was sent an email asking me to add my name to a petition to the Mayor of London in support of making London the world’s first National Park City. At first glance the idea seemed a little absurd, more suitable as a story from the pages of The Onion

Visit Greater London National Park and observe the daily migration of the vast herds of workerbeast as they criss-cross the concrete tundra from the far reaches of the Thames Valley, before descending on the great waterhole of Zone 1.

 Gaze in wonder up towards the towering peaks of Mt Shard, looming over scavenging packs of estate agents, ferrying predatory house-buyers back and forth, scratching and gazumping as they fight over the last affordable semis in the outer suburbs.

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Canary Wharf from Mudchute City Farm

But the more I thought about it, the more interesting the concept became. The idea’s essential wrongness stemmed only from my pre-conceived view of how a National Park should look and feel.

I suspect I’m not alone in holding certain, rather narrow, expectations of a National Park. Whether British like the Peak District, The Lakes or The Broads, or American such as Yellowstone or Yosemite, I want my National Park to have a tang of the wild.

And while I’m admiring the view from a mountain, foraging deep into a heavily forested river valley, or standing before the might of a geyser, I expect to be awestruck and, if I’m really lucky, to experience the sublime. This is why the notion of a major city as a National Park seems superficially ridiculous. However, it might be that it is our thinking that is wrong, rather than the challenging concept of an urban wild.

Part of the problem is that many of us cling on to an ideal of nature and landscape that for the most part is stuck in the 18th century. Our post-Romantic view of the world prevents us from seeing things as they really are.

Jonathan Raban suggests in Passage to Juneau that for many in the western world, our relationship with the natural and ‘the wild’ continues to be shaped and conditioned by the spectre of the 18th century sublime, as defined by Burke and refined by Wordsworth and the Romantic poets that followed.

“Two centuries of Romanticism, much of it routine and degenerate, has blunted everyone’s ability to look at waterfalls and precipices in other than dusty and second-hand terms”

As a result, when we visit existing, traditional National Parks, our preconceptions sometimes get in the way, and in our hunger to experience the wild, we (subconsciously or not) tend to block out the fact that even sparsely populated landscapes such as these have been extensively shaped by human hands as much as by geology and nature.

In some cases the desire to experience pure wild landscape has led to its creation by artificial means, such as the dispossession of the Crow Indians in the Yellowstone area in the late 19th century, as the authorities strove to keep wildland vistas clear of native inhabitants for tourists hungry to see a landscape empty of human activity.

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Hedge Elephant, Hornsey

In contemporary British National Parks, as the BBC series Tales from the National Parks demonstrates, the day to day reality of these environments for those living in, working in or visiting them is quite different from an idealised state of blissful tranquility and an existence utterly removed from the cares and concerns of town and city.

Writer Olivia Laing reflects on the notion of ‘natural’ landscape in her book To The River, as she follows the course of the Ouse through the Sussex Weald:

The idea that nature can be prised free from civilization is, in England’s overpopulated south at least, absurd. The landscape hereabouts [the Weald – but could apply equally to London] has been shaped by centuries of man’s activities, as man, I suppose, has been shaped by the land.”

Robert Macfarlane explores this further in the The Wild Places (he also examines the notion of the sublime in his earlier book Mountains of the Mind), noting that our experience of the ‘wild’ doesn’t have to be limited to remote and inhospitable landscapes.

“It was not that such places as Hope and Rannoch, the last fastnesses, were worthless. No, in their stripped-back austerity, their fierce elementally, these landscapes remained invaluable in their power to awe. But I had learned to see another type of wildness, to which I had once been blind: the wildness of natural life, the sheer force of ongoing organic existence, vigorous and chaotic. This wildness was not about asperity, but about luxuriance, vitality, fun. The weed thrusting through a crack in the pavement, the tree root impudently cracking a carapace of tarmac: these were wild signs, as much as the storm wave and the snowflake.”

The truth is that our overcrowded Islands don’t contain any really extensive areas of pristine wilderness and probably haven’t for at least several thousand years. There’s an entrancing London-centric demonstration of this in an animated sequence at the beginning of the Museum of London’s prehistoric gallery – London before London. In it we travel over a 3D landscape moving back through time from modern London to a thickly forested river valley circa 450,000 BC. Even this far back, small groups of our ancestors were making clearings in the trees, hunting animals and building homes.

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Plant Wall, Camley Street, Kings Cross

Rather than limiting or spoiling our experience of the natural, the creation of an urban National Park, has the potential to transform and reinvigorate our relationship with and understanding of the landscape and cityscapes around us.

Geographer Daniel Raven-Ellison stresses this in his call for people to get behind the idea.

“How would being a National Park change the way we live, work and play in the city? How would we educate children, design buildings, plan health services or create new leisure activities differently if we started thinking of London as a National Park?”

Of course London’s own flora and fauna, from native species like fox and (in decreasing numbers) sparrows, to interlopers such as the Green Parakeets that can be found in Brockwell Park and other parks in south London, would play a major role in its identity as a National Park – for a major world city London has an extensive range of green space, boasting many different types of habitat including woodland and scrub, heath, wetland and estuary, as well as the built environment of the city infrastructure.

Beyond its parks and gardens, London also contains a multitude of scattered fusion-habitats that are urban by situation, but also places where plant life and the insects, birds and animals that follow, break through the bricks and mortar and grab a foothold.

The most extensive and best connected of these are the tree and shrub-lined suburban railway lines that snake across London, forming long green, fox haunted corridors through the city. Along with these accidental green routes there are also many patches of other edgeland type sites across the city including allotments, derelict brownfield sites colonised by Buddleia and other waste-ground loving plants and those random patches of ground between building and street where a tree, bushes or scrubby patch of weeds sprout up to fill the gaps.

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New River Walk, behind Seven Sisters Road

The Greater London National Park website lists some perhaps surprising stats:

“Recognised as one of the world’s most important urban habitats, green spaces and water occupy over 60% of London’s land. Over 1,300 Sites of Importance
for Nature Conservation cover 19% of the National Park and are home to more than 1,500 species of flowering plants and 300 species of bird.”

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River Steps, Wapping

I think it is important to stress that the campaign is not intended to diminish the importance of existing national parks or other more rural, ‘natural’ areas. This isn’t a case of giving up, and thinking ‘Oh hang it then, that’s it for the woods, the meadows, the jungles, the plastic strewn oceans and fly-tipped Himalayan mountains. Let’s forget about them and celebrate the nettle and the Grey Squirrel until the last tiger has been shot and the last ice cap melted’. At least I don’t see it that way. I believe this idea is more about reframing things, looking again and reassessing our relationship with the rest of the world’s species. What can we do better? What can we gain from a new perspective?

What is really exciting about the idea is the potential to inspire a new relationship with our surroundings, that helps us understand better the ways in which humanity’s favourite environment – the city – combines with more organic elements. The concept of an urban National Park shouldn’t stop with London either, though its scale and unique (for a mega city) amounts of green space make it a good place to start.

Some London writers are already delving into the area, looking at what can happen in those strange thresholds where the urban meets the untamed; writers like Gareth Rees, in his Hackney Marshman blog and book and John Rogers in This Other London. In the 1970’s Richard Mabey explored the edgelands of West London in his classic The Unofficial Countryside. The creation of a formal London National Park City has the potential to open up the territory to even more people, creating a whole new kind of actual and imaginative space.

It might never happen, but as an idea and a way of seeing the world, Greater London National Park is fantastically rich with potential.

Links & References

Greater London National Park

Guardian Article on Greater London National Park

Independent article – Is it time for our capital to become a national park?

BBC – Tales from the National Parks 

Museum of London – London Before London

Olivia Laing – To The River, Canongate 2011

Robert Macfarlane – The Wild Places, Granta, 2007

Mountains of the Mind, Granta, 2003

Jonathan Raban – Passage to Juneau: A Sea and its meanings, Picador, 1999

Gareth Rees – The Marshman Chronicles, Influx Press, 2013

Blog – http://www.marshmanchronicles.com/marshman/

John Rogers – This Other London – Harper Collins, 2013

Blog – http://thelostbyway.com

Another article by me on London National Park City can be found in issue 12 of the excellent Earthlines magazine

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View of The City of London from One Tree Hill, Honor Oak

2 thoughts on “Escape to a wilder city: London as National Park

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