Globally, cities are more often associated with high population density and steel infrastructure than natural environments. What would it mean to revise that idea and envision an urban area as a park instead? That’s exactly what Daniel Raven-Ellison, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, has been doing in London, England, as it is poised to become a National Park City. This comes on the heels of another project for Raven-Ellison, capturing footage of representative landscapes across the United Kingdom so as to appreciate its diversity within 100 seconds. In this interview, he explains how geographical thinking plays a role in his endeavors.
DM: The National Park Cities program is aiming for a cultural change about attitudes and ways of engaging nature from within a city. London has been a good place to begin, a city that already has numerous parks, both large and small, and a population that appreciates being out-of-doors and walking. Last year, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, signed on to the idea and pledged funds as a sign of the city’s commitment. Can you share an update with us about the London National Park City, in anticipation of its launching in summer 2019?
DRE: For some people the idea of turning cities into a new kind of national park will sound ridiculous. It is certainly a radical idea, but I think it’s a good one for a number of reasons. From deserts to glaciers and rainforests to tropical grasslands, when you look around the world there are national parks that represent every recognised major kind of habitat and landscape apart from one…a major urban area. I believe that urban life is just as valuable as rural life, that people as animals deserve brilliant habitats to live in and that cities are just as interesting to explore as the countryside. Finally, I also think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s in cities where most people have the most power and agency to make decisions to improve our relationships with nature.
It may surprise some people, but London is an incredibly green city. It’s nearly 50 percent green and blue space, there are as many trees as people and Homo sapiens are just one of 15, 000 species found in the capital. All of this is the result of centuries of Londoners working together to create the diverse landscape we enjoy today.
After five years of campaigning by thousands of people, the London National Park City is launching this July with a big festival of hundreds of events taking place across the capital. Inspired by rural national parks, the London National Park City is a place you can explore, a vision you can share, a community you can join and a way of getting organised. Vitally, it’s also a different way of seeing and thinking about the city. Our purpose is to celebrate what’s good about the city, but to challenge everyone to help make life better in London by making the city greener, healthier and wilder and spending more time enjoying ourselves outdoors. From the extinction of species and the climate emergency to air pollution-related deaths and flooding, we face many complex challenges. The reality is that through a combination of everyday actions and strategic policy, we can mitigate them. Good strong geographical thinking, data, information, communication, decision-making and action will be at the heart of making the London National Park City a success.
The National Park City idea is now spreading to other cities, with people asking if and how their cities can become National Park Cities. In response to this, the National Park City Foundation, World Urban Parks and Salzburg Global Seminar are holding an international consultation to develop a Universal Charter for National Park Cities. The charter will include a vision and definition as well as goals, values and characteristics of National Park Cities. It may also include a section for people and organisations to share what actions they are taking to make progress towards these goals. The consultation on this is open until the end of April and we would love to hear from more people, including children and students, as well as small groups and large organisations.
DM: In your projects, such as the 2016 Wild Cities one, in which you walked over 1,600 km and crossed almost 70 cities in the United Kingdom along with 15 of its national parks, you’ve embraced the use of technology to collect place-based data along the way. Maps such as these CISCO-sponsored ones, in which your emotional state was recorded in the locations, are the fascinating result. In what ways are place-based data, maps, and/or GIS being used to support or promote the London National Park City project?
DRE: Geographical data and great mapping has been vital to our success. We’ve worked with organisations like Urban Good, Ordnance Survey and Greenspace Information for Greater London to create maps that help people to “get” the National Park City idea, seeing London not just as a city, but as a landscape too.
Going deeper, we are very lucky in London and the UK to have lots of free open data that can be used to visualise a wide range of challenges. Working with this data it’s possible to see where in the city needs more trees, how it might be possible to create pollinator corridors or reduce nature deprivation. It’s my ambition that we create a service where any individual can type in their postcode (zip code) and then not just see challenges they face, but actions they can take on their own, in their household, street or neighbourhood to overcome them. A good example is using strong geographical intelligence to inform actions that mitigate flood risk. While the National Park City will be delivered by people, at scale, it will potentially have a large and long-term impact on the landscape itself.
DM: You’re known as a “guerrilla geographer,” and that plays out in the ways you encourage people to be ruthless in their pursuit of direct experiences in our precious natural environments. Part of the motto for the London National Park City is to have it be “greener, healthier and wilder.” How do you envision “wilder” in the urban context?
DRE: For starters, it’s good to realise that core to the National Park City idea is that it’s not just about the “parks,” it’s about reimagining the entire city as a national park. Everyone, everything and everywhere is included.
Guerrilla geography is radical, alternative, unexpected or even surprising geographies. It’s about exploring places or doing things that challenge yourself or others to think differently about the world. For me it’s a practice that is rooted in social and environmental justice — as well as geographical education.
I don’t think that cities or urban areas are wildernesses, but I do think they contain and are home to wildness…through wind, rain, plants, bugs, birds and even people at times. I’m not sure an urban racoon, peregrine falcon or beetle feel or think of themselves as any more or less wild than one in the countryside or a forest, and I’m not going to judge how wild they are based on my perception of their individual geographies either.
I don't think we need more mosquitos or sandflies in our cities, but I do think that having a better relationship with the rest of nature in our urban centres will improve our own health and wellbeing and the health and wellbeing of wildlife not just within urban footprints, but into the many places that urban people influence around the world.