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What a difference a year makes

Logo: London National Park City

By Tim Webb, Trustee of the National Park City Foundation

Back in August 2019, I shared our excitement at London being declared a National Park City and looked forward to a future where Londoners were all busy working together to make the capital greener, healthier and wilder.

Then came the devastating impact of Covid-19, which didn’t just reveal the cracks in our society, it tore them apart and made them wider and deeper. Our inequalities and the fragility of our lives are now on full display and we were forced to rely upon the goodwill of our communities and the sanctuary offered by our parks and public green spaces.

Covid warning sign on Walthamstow Marshes, Lee Valley (© Tim Webb)
Covid warning sign on Walthamstow Marshes, Lee Valley (© Tim Webb)

In March, London National Park City had just recruited two volunteer coordinators, Ed and Floree, to work with a talented team of volunteer Ranger recruits. The idea was that this team of fifty or so would make the vision a reality by working with their communities sharing skills, motivating and inspiring more people to act.

The pandemic scuppered our first anniversary celebration plans and our Rangers regrouped and emerged with a new plan utilising technology. Physical gatherings gave way to virtual ones. In a way, it has been a levelling experience. Many people can’t attend meetings or find them intimidating. Joining via the safety of an internet connection allowed more people and more diverse people to add their voices and ideas.

Covid-19 is a virus. It has no intent. It recognises no boundaries. We currently have no cure and little in the way of defence. Hygiene and distancing are the key elements we have to protect ourselves. The National Park City vision is a social one and we are determined to keep that as a core value.

Instead of a celebratory first birthday we held a series of online events called A hundred voices. Over the course of three days we had a hundred people, individuals or representatives from all sorts of community groups including some of our own Rangers, giving a fifteen-minute presentation on how they are improving life in London. You can see some of these recordings on our website.

London National Park City 100 Voices virtual event ( © LNPC)
London National Park City 100 Voices virtual event ( © LNPC)

Of course, it’s not just a London thing. We’ve also been promoting the vision to other cities across the UK and around the world. This autumn we will be broadcasting 100 International voices from people sharing how they plan to make their hometowns National Park Cities. Expect people from Newcastle, Seoul, Coventry, Toronto, Cardiff, Adelaide, Belfast, and Glasgow. We aim to have a family of 25 National Park Cities by 2025.

We had good reasons for wanting to expand our family, but the global pandemic has made it more urgent. Greener, healthier and wilder cities are more resilient, better able to cope with future pandemics, climate change and economic strife.

Making better use of our green spaces means more people outdoors more of the time. Improving the number and quality of these green spaces is good for nature and allows us to make best use of the services nature provides, such as pollution and climate control, water management, food production, waste management and energy creation. Being outdoors also means we are more active and improve our own physical and mental wellbeing.

The worldwide outrage at the continued and everyday inequalities of life have added enormously to calls for something better. Sparked and fuelled by Black Lives Matter it welded together the environmental and social movements; No one and no place left behind in our quest for greener, healthier and wilder ways of living.

It is not an empty string of words. The body of evidence supporting the need to bring nature into our lives has grown and is now a strapping full size, hit you in the eye, hunk of muscle attached to a skeleton of steel forged from research, experience and scientific study. The carbon-fuelled world is killing us. I would say no government leader anywhere in the world could argue against nature-based solutions, but I’m sure we can all think of at least one!

Northala Fields, W London. absorbing A40 traffic noise & pollution while also providing amenity space and rainwater storage (© Tim Webb)
Northala Fields, W London. absorbing A40 traffic noise & pollution while also providing amenity space and rainwater storage (© Tim Webb)

Nature based solutions are where we harness the power of our environment to deliver things we need, such as clean air, quality food, energy, the insulating qualities of green roofs and walls, allowing public spaces to act as overflows and reservoirs to reduce flash flooding. They bring a raft of new jobs and economic opportunities. There are health benefits too.

In what could have been one of its last big reports, Public Health England published Improving Access to green space: A new review 2020. The PHE report states “…often greenspace is still seen as a liability rather than an asset.” It goes on to provide evidence for funding parks, including statistics such as:

  • £2.1 billion per year could be saved in health costs if everyone in England had good access to greenspace, due to increased physical activity in those spaces.
  • in Sheffield, for every £1 spent on maintaining parks, there is a benefit of £34 in health costs saved, with local residents being the primary beneficiaries.

In London, the return on that £1 investment quoted in the Sheffield example is around £27. Still a significant sum and Londoner’s average age is lower than that of Sheffield. Global trends suggest birth rates are dropping and people are living longer, so the average age across all populations will only rise, as will all the health costs that come with old age.

As I said in 2019. The National Park City vision is a long-term one to win hearts and minds, inspiring behaviour change. It is a licence for simple everyday actions like recycling or sowing seeds to be celebrated for the collective contributions they make to everyone’s lives. Our actions snowball and the impacts are amplified.

Based on recent history I will not attempt to predict where we will be in twelve months’ time. All I will say, is that National Park Cities enable communities to create better places for people and wildlife.

Find out more about London National Park City here

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