This was the question posed at the Royal Festival Hall two weeks back, when a diverse group of public sector workers, environmentalists, scientists, and a few beekeeping school children met to exchange ideas. Billing itself as a community meeting, the night was a chance for campaigners to promote their causes, champion some blue-sky thinking and ultimately move the audience to action. While the campaign itself is still in its early stages (it launched in 2014), judging by the range of speakers on offer, it’s starting to gather pace. In fact, as his GP Tom Coffey (Tooting’s proudest resident) was there to inform us, Sadiq Khan has publicly backed the idea, and hopefully his current proposals for tackling air pollution will move things in the right direction, though whether they’ll be bold enough remains to be seen.
So what would declaring London a National Park City mean? Well, the main thrust of the argument is to make London a greener, healthier, and safer place to live and work, which in practice boils down to creating cleaner air, cleaner rivers, and helping to forge a stronger connection between people and nature.
In order to make their case, and inspire visions of what a National Park City could mean, each speaker was given 5/10 minutes to talk about their project or vision for a future, greener London, and in a night packed full of statistics, the following ones stuck out:
47% of London is green space
On average, London’s children spend less time outside than prison inmates
Close to 10,000 people in London die due to the effects of air pollution every year
1 in 7 children in London haven’t visited natural green space in the past year
Around 55m tonnes of sewage flows into the Thames every year
London’s trees remove 2,241 tonnes of pollution, a 1/6 of the pollution made by cars
2.2 million pieces of litter are dropped on UK streets every day
¼ of the countries carbon emissions come from homes
While most of these stats make for pretty grim reading (the litter one particularly irks me) there is room for hope too, especially as London already has so much green space to work with (though the project hopes to increase this to 50%). When it comes to the city’s sewage problem, the Thames Tideway Tunnel, which is due to be completed in 2023, has been designed to support the city’s now antiquated sewerage system (which was designed to cope with a maximum of 4 million people) and should stop the almost daily overflow of sewage into the Thames for at least the next 100 years. If 2023 seems like a long way off though, the Thames Baths project should be an exciting prospect (it certainly is for me). The project aims to bring open-air swimming back to the River Thames, but don’t worry, until the sewage problem is sorted they’ll be filtering the Thames water to make it perfectly safe to swim in (and heating it in the winter too), and hopefully all within the next few years…here’s hoping.
Beyond questions about pollution though, many of the speakers were keen to highlight the consequences of being disconnected from nature, and the affect this can have on our mental health. The dramatic increase in childhood mental health issues has been trickling into the national consciousness recently, and Beth Collier, founder of Wild in the City! promoted the idea of time spent in nature when young, as an investment in future mental health.
When it came to the question of exactly how to reconnect London’s children with nature though, the speakers often had quite limited views, particularly regarding technology. Eyes were rolled at computer games and Pokemon on more than one occasion, and this inability to engage with young people via a medium that is a huge part of their lives seemed somewhat lacking in imagination for an event that was keen to be so forward facing. Especially as the recent Pokemon Go craze brought kids (and a lot of adults) out onto the streets and got them to explore areas of their neighbourhoods that they hadn’t stepped foot in before – including green spaces. The fact that kids can apparently name more Pokemon than actual animal species may sound depressing, but surely this new tech could be used to help get kids outside in the first place? Either way, technology certainly isn’t going anywhere, so engagement with it has to be the way forward if a scheme like this wants to succeed.
The way in which we perceive London as a city offered more thought-provoking insights though. Beth Collier stated the importance of making sure cities are liveable as opposed to places we just survive in, while Fiona Reynolds (former director of the National Trust) brought up the sadly rather old-fashioned idea of beauty. Her argument was that we have to fight against the idea of seeing London (and cities in general) purely as wealth creators, where beauty is only considered if its financially viable. Interestingly, given this train of thought, the controversial Garden Bridge project – which has brought up many questions regarding beauty, the line between private and public space, and a hell of a lot of raised eyebrows about funding – wasn’t mentioned by any of the speakers at all, though I am sure many of them had strong feelings about it! John Muir, the Scot responsible for setting up the first National Parks in America was brought up though, along with his apt quote ‘we need beauty as well as bread’.
All in all there were certainly many more questions than there were answers at this event, but every cause has to start somewhere, and change, especially on the scale proposed here, doesn’t happen over night. The thought of being able to swim in the Thames one day though, coupled with a desire not to drop down dead while walking down Oxford Street on a smoggy day, makes me think that a scheme like this, which encourages London and Londoners towards a greener future, can only be a good thing.
You can learn more and read the full proposal for making London a National Park City here.