Turning concrete jungles into national parks

London is the first urban area in the world to become a ‘national park city’.

When people hear the word national park, they usually think of forests, mountains and even savannahs. They do not usually picture cities. Yet, earlier this week, London became the world’s first-ever ‘national park city‘ when it signed up to the International Charter for National Park Cities.

An initiative of the National Park City FoundationWorld Urban Parks and Salzburg Global Seminar, the distinction recognises London’s large green areas and its commitment to greening up the UK capital, making it healthier and wilder, and promoting outdoor activities. Although London is the first national park city, it will not be the last. The initiative aims to name at least 25 national park cities by 2025.

“This status is a truly fantastic reflection of our vibrant and dynamic city and our amazing network of green spaces, rivers and natural habitats,” said London mayor Sadiq Khan. “We must do all we can to help tackle the global climate emergency and ecological crisis and address the decline in biodiversity.”

To mark and celebrate London’s new status, the city has launched a National Park City Festival (20-28 July 2019).

Despite general enthusiasm about London’s new status, some have raised questions about the compatibility of Khan’s commitment to making London greener and the mayor’s green-lighting of a major new road tunnel.

The urban jungle

London’s abundance of parks and protected greenbelt land mean that a surprisingly large percentage of its surface area is green, with an estimated 8 million trees covering a fifth of the city’s land, with plans to increase tree cover by an additional 10% by 2050. The UK capital is also home to over 15,000 wildlife species.

While London is one of the greenest cities in the world, many urban areas possess ‘green lungs’, in the form of parks and forests. Brussels, for example, is one of the greenest cities in Europe, with green spaces covering a half of the greater city’s territory, according to one estimate.

Although declaring an entire city a national park is something new, designating national parks within cities has been going on for over a century. For example, a protected rainforest is thriving in the heart of the Malaysian capital, in the form of the Kuala Lumpur Forest Eco Park, which was established in 1906.

In environmental circles, cities have traditionally been viewed solely as problems. However, although urban areas are certainly part of the problem, there is an increasing recognition that, handled correctly, they can also become part of the solution. Not only can increased urban living cut down or reverse the loss of arable land, it can also reduce transportation distances, and hence the use of energy.

In addition, cities have become de facto habitats for numerous species in their own right. With the correct stewardship, the role of urban areas as wildlife habitats can be enhanced and grown.