Could London be the world's first National Park city?



When I arrived in this city four years ago, I was met by several surprises. The length of time it takes to travel from one side of town to the other (a good 543 hours) was a not-so welcome revelation, nor was the alarming number of chuggers (that’s charity-muggers FYI) or the absolute chaos that is the Monday morning commute.

But, this was all negated by the discovery of Gail’s Bakery and the fact I could go for dinner with friends without the need for an itemized ten-point strategy as to how EXACTLY I’d be getting home. Perhaps the most exciting epiphany was realizing just how green this city really is. And it seems I’m not the first to notice. In fact, a curious campaign to make London the first National Park City is steadily gaining steam.

I know what you’re thinking. LONDON’S NOT GREEN. Try visiting the South Downs, you ignorant yuppie. But wait, wait – before you start chasing me with torches and pitchforks, hear me out: I’m not saying London is the south-easterly equivalent of the Lake District or anything. God, imagine the faces of confused tourists bearing maps and searching for Beatrix Potter’s country cottage amongst the pandemonium of Brixton market. No, I’m not saying that. But as cities go, this 607 square-mile expanse is remarkably green. 47% so, in fact.

I know at first glance any attempt to claim a city that’s home to 8.7 million people, 2.6 million cars, 270 tube stations and 37 Gail’s Bakeries (approx.) could be a National Park, seems farcical. You can’t really put Loch Lomond and London in the same boat, can you? Our nation’s capital is a great many things, – a centre for culture, a historical hub, home to the most concentrated collection of chicken shops in the country – but it’s not exactly the last great undiscovered AONB (that’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to you and me).

What many of us fail to realise, however, is that also within the parameters of the M25, are some 8.3 million trees, 3000 parks, 30, 000 allotments, and 300 farms. The capital is a veritable smorgasbord of open spaces, tree-lined streets, rivers, canals, boating-lakes, herb-boxes on window-sills, hanging-baskets on balconies, back-gardens, greenhouses, grassy verges and fantastical floral displays. This is the home of Hampstead Heath, the Serpentine, Regents Park and London Fields and it’s gloriously green.

London’s richness in terms of parkland means city-dwellers needn’t pile in the car and drive 300 miles north-west just to get some fresh air – it’s right on our doorstep. What’s ironic is that, a significant chunk of us don’t capitalise on this. A 2016 study found that ¾ children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates. And a study by Sowing the Seeds found that 1 in 7 London families had not made a single visit to a natural place in an entire year.

Perhaps you don’t think this very much matters. Why is nature so important? So long as they can code, why does it matter whether children are correctly able to identify a conker? But nature’s value is so much more than sheer aesthetic pleasure ­– it’s vital to our health and prosperity. Mental health issues are on the rise, costing the city £26 billion a year – and one in five of London’s children is overweight. Given that there is a direct correlation between the amount of accessible green space and improved psychological and physical health – London’s abundance of open spaces could provide part of the answer to these burgeoning dilemmas. Myriad studies have proven nature’s particular benefit to child development, and according to AECOM, London’s trees provide around £95 million worth of free air filtration services every year. Our green areas are helping us breath.

So no, London isn’t the Lake District. I know that. But it is a gloriously green city –and recognising this fact, could make it a happier, healthier place for everyone to live.

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Sarah Barratt