Why making London a National Park City risks diluting the value of the national park brand

The Peak District: unlike London, an actual National Park. Image: Getty.

The movement to declare London a national park city in 2019 is gaining momentum. Mayor Sadiq Khan recently launched National Park City Week, along with a series of outdoor activities to kick off the school holidays. Citizen groups and local authorities are signing up to a charter, with the aim of creating a city rich in wildlife, with clean air and affordable green homes – a London where everyone has access to quality green space and rivers that are safe to swim in.

The plan is to create a Greater London National Park City partnership, with representatives in each of London’s 33 boroughs. This new organisation will have no formal powers, and its estimated £4m annual running costs will be raised from public and corporate giving. It’s an unprecedented proposal: up until now, only sovereign states – not cities – have declared national parks and specified how they will be managed, according to national law.

The motivations driving this initiative are admirable, worthy and important. Citizens across the capital have mobilised around the belief that making their city greener, wilder and healthier will improve their quality of life. But as British people head outdoors for the summer – whether in the city, or the countryside - I ask that time is taken to ponder the wisdom of aligning the term “national park” with a city – and the nation’s capital, at that.

A rural asset

The term “national park” was coined in the US in the 1870s, to encapsulate a policy vision aimed at building a sense of national identity and strengthening collective values through the enjoyment of nature.

Britain’s national parks were planned as part of the post-World War II reconstruction. The 1949 National Park Act was underpinned by progressive policy ideals, with a view to re-imaging the national identity after empire, promoting outdoor recreation as part of a holistic national health policy and creating cultural and economic flows between the cities and the countryside.

National parks were imagined as scenic natural areas with a connection to surrounding cities. To that end, Britain’s first national parks were located beyond – but within reach of – major industrial centres. Today, the geography of Britain is defined by both its natural and urban areas; by both London and the Lake District, Leeds and New Forest, Birmingham, Bristol, and Manchester as well as the Peak District and the North York Moors.

National parks have, until now, been a rural asset. The EU referendum revealed an urban-rural political divide, alongside a rise in identity poltics. Linking the national park brand with a city in the same year that Britain leaves the European Union could inflame these issues, because rural citizens might feel that the capital is appropriating and diluting a brand and identity that is theirs.

National parks have value because they celebrate and empower rural and regional identities in relation to cites – while also bridging the gap between them.


Going green

It’s well established that greener and wilder cities can benefit residents and the economy alike. In the 1980s, cities such as Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham, Telford and London all invested in “bringing back” countryside and nature through a combination of urban planning, land reclamation, public education and leisure facilities.

City authorities also appointed ecologists and designated networks of Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (known as SINCs, for short). Urban wildlife trusts formed in Birmingham and the Black Country in 1980, London in 1982 and Sheffield and Rotherham in 1985.

If London declares its self a national park city, a bunch of other cities would have strong grounds to do the same. But this could simply end up diluting the public value of the national park brand. It could be more difficult to make sense of the national geography, if it were made up of national parks and national park cities.

Cities often adopt labels and slogans in their promotion and marketing. But certain labels are associated with awards, competitions and designations that meet ambitions and standards set by authoritative third parties. Labels such as UK City of Culture, European Green Capital, Olympic city, UNESCO world heritage site and national park all have meaning, prestige, obligations and impact, because they are embedded within institutional structures of society.

Of course, citizens are free to band together to act outside of these institutions – but authorities should reflect carefully before supporting moves that could undermine them.

Becoming a Biosphere City

London doesn’t meet the criteria to be designated a national park under UK law. But it could meet the criteria of a Biosphere Reserve. The UNESCO Man in the Biosphere Programme was launched in 1971, to explore ways of improving the relationship between people and their environments. The programme has a strong focus on sustainability, science, innovation and shared learning to develop local solutions to global challenges.

The Isle of Man and the municipal borough of Brighton and Hove are Biosphere Reserves. And although “London Biosphere City” may not have the same cachet as “London National Park City”, the term clearly connects the aims of London’s draft environment strategy with the National Park City movement.

The ConversationIt’s great that Londoners want to make their city wilder and greener. But adopting the “national park” label risks damaging a brand and policy ideal that has served Britain well. In contrast, the term “biosphere city” can engage with broader sustainability agendas, while reinforcing the image of London as a progressive, global city.

Paul Jepson, Course Director, MSc Biodiversity, Conservation and Management, University of Oxford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.