Greener, healthier, and wilder: How London is leading a world revolution

London is now a national park city. But what does this mean?
London National Park

In 2019 the capital became the world’s first National Park City.

The national park city is an entirely new concept. The idea is so new most Londoners are still getting to grips with the notion.

So what does it mean for London to be a national park city?

“It’s about taking the green spaces that exist and improving them,” says Tim Webb, long-term trustee of the London National Park City body that oversees projects.

“We’re talking about planting wild flowers. Window boxes. And greening buildings with green walls and rooftop gardens. Planting trees. We can expand the green spaces of London without knocking down a single building.”

The long-term aim is to turn the urban landscape of London into a wilderness, where plantlife of all varieties flourish, and animals – birds, insects, amphibians, foxes and deer - can thrive. The vision includes creating eco-walkways between existing parks.

The plan is ambitious, and a little chaotic. That’s deliberate. The original vision of Dan Raven-Ellison, the former geography teacher and activist, who dreamed up the idea of London becoming a national park city almost a decade ago, was that ordinary Londoners should take the lead.

“Anyone can get involved,” says Webb. “There are formal roles, like becoming a Ranger. They take the lead on projects across London’s boroughs. The youngest Ranger is 15 years old, the oldest 72. And we urge people to become a National Park City Maker. These are people who look at their street and neighbourhood and imagine how it could be made better. Anyone can contribute. Just ask, ‘What if?’. What if we adopted a little patch of land and planted something? What if we cleaned up this stretch of grass so children can play there?’”

He cites a mum who noticed the walk to school with her child was blighted by litter. She cleaned up the pathway. Started planting flowers. Soon other parents were involved. “We ended up with a green corridor of routes, like a spider’s web, leading to the centre where the school is. It’s a prime example of the impact one person can make on a whole community.”

The social media hashtag #lnpc is a great way to follow the initiatives. For example, at the Lavender Pond Nature Reserve in Rotherhithe there are dragonfly activities for children, pond dipping and bug hotel making, as well as work to repair bank erosion and pathway restoration. Egyptian geese and moorhen are flourishing, while butterfly breeds include Meadow Brown and Painted Lady. It’s an idyll, perfectly representing the sort of city the LNPC wants to promote.

How to make builders greener

A major aspect to the National Park City mission is to transform London’s built environment. The aim is to turn concrete and steel buildings into something a little wilder and plant friendly. It’s a job for the LNPC Development Forum.

“We have 12 members in the Forum,” says Emily Hamilton,  Co-Founder of the LNPC Development Forum and head of ESG at Savills Investment Management. “We started setting up this forum over a year ago and we launched early this year. The slogan is Greener, Healthier, Wilder, but the question is what that means in practice. We meet once a quarter to discuss it.”

She points to demonstrator projects, which showcase what can be done: “One of our members, Fabrix, is developing a next gen office in Southwark called Roots In The Sky. As well as a workspace the building will be home to one of Europe’s biggest roof forests, open to the local community with its own access point. The enhanced structure will support 1,300 tonnes of soil creating a healthy and resilient environment for the trees. The building will give its occupiers the opportunity to make a big statement about the value they put on nature.’’

Green walls are possible too – adding a structure to allow moss, grass, ivy, shrubs, and flowers to grow up the side of a building, with built-in irrigation. The visual effect is stunning, and insects and birds love it.

Green buildings also make sense from a financial perspective, says Hamilton. “Working in real estate investment management, I see so much legislation on what investors need to report in terms of sustainability. The driver from investors to put their capital into sustainable assets is increasing massively. It’s also important for occupiers, who have their own sustainability targets to meet. One of the easiest places for businesses to start is at the office. Headquarters say a lot about a company’s values. ”

She cites other benefits. Rooftop forests can mitigate flooding. Green buildings are cooler – saving money and lowering the carbon footprint of the building. There’s also the human aspect. Workers appreciate being around foliage and animal life. It’s a more human way to live.

One of the Forum members is Quintain, the developer behind Wembley Park, the transformed northwest London neighbourhood and the UK’s largest single site of build to rent. Julian Tollast, head of masterplanning and design at Quintain, has just completed five years as an LNPC trustee, and he says his company is wholeheartedly committed to the ideas of a city park.

Wembley Park exemplifies this. “25 per cent of the 85 acres is accessible, open space,” says Tollast.  “The National Park City aims to connect people to their landscape, and that’s exactly what we want to achieve at Wembley Park.” There’s increasing levels of biodiversity across the estate. The open spaces are designed for the community to use and feel a part of – in particular a seven acre park.

Tollast says the business case is “tricky”. He adds: “I’m not sure you can see what it adds to the bottom line”. In fact, Quintain is committed to more than mere return on investment. “We have these 10 design principles,” he says. “The last two are that good design activates all the five senses. It’s not just about sight. It’s the sound, the aroma, and in landscape terms, what you can taste. We ask, will be proud of what we’ve done? Would we want to live there ourselves? That’s the ultimate test.”

So what’s next for London National Park City?

The need for London to change is clear. Half of Londoners want to move out of the city, according to research by the London Assembly – a trend accelerated by the pandemic.

The LNPC has a long set of goals, including increasing access to green space for lower socio-economic groups, the over 65s, and women. Projects require money – so sponsors must be found; the trustees are optimistic that the environmental mission will resonate with corporations in an age when ethical action is as important to investors and staff as making a profit.

The political goodwill is there. Every one of the candidates at the Mayoral election supported the LNPC.

For now the aim is to spread the message, and get Londoners to take part in this magnificent project.

“The biggest challenge is imagination,” says Tim Webb. “People are reluctant to think of London as another habitat, just as wetlands or woodlands are a habitat. Urban spaces are a mosaic. Whilst we can’t rewild, by reintroducing wild bison and boar, we are rewilding people to live within nature in London. We can reconnect people, so they live amongst stag beetles and foxes. It’s all out there, but we really don’t see it much or pay attention to it. Our hope is to change that.”

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