National Park Cities – have you ever heard of these? No. Neither had we, until we read about them in Rob Hopkins Book ‘From What Is to What If, his manifesto to reclaim and unleash the creative power of our imaginations.

Inspired by the model of our rural National Parks, which aim to promote our understanding and enjoyment of their special qualities, conserve and enhance their natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage, and foster the economic and social well-being of local communities within them, the National Park City movement aims to do the something similar but within our cities.

What is a National Park City?

The working definition of a National Park City is ‘A large urban area that is managed and semi-protected through both formal and informal means to enhance the natural capital of its living landscape. A defining feature is the widespread and significant commitment of residents, visitors and decision-makers to allow natural processes to provide a foundation for a better quality of life’. Something that we can all agree on. 

London was the world’s first city to become a National Park City in July 2019. Although started and led by a group of volunteers through a community grassroots movement, it had the support and buy-in from millions of residents, as well as the London Mayor. Although not an adopted policy initiative its aims are to enable London’s residents, visitors and partners to enjoy London’s great outdoors more; make the city greener, healthier and wilder; and promote its identity as a National Park City.

When we think of our cities and towns, we primarily tend to think of our built environment and the ‘hardness’ of them. Our houses, shops, places where we work and learn, the infrastructure, the roads, pavements,  bus lanes and rail lines, the car parks, the bridges. But how often do we think about the green and blue parts of our towns and cities? This is an exciting mechanism by which we can do this. 

Cities as holistic entities

The reality is that we live in places that are a diverse fabric of green and blue areas, shaped by local geology, topography and landscape. Comprising small nature reserves, wildlife corridors, parks, historic gardens, allotments, cemeteries, recreational and sports pitches, gardens, streams, rivers and lakes. These areas are just as abundant, vibrant and valuable and, importantly, more accessible than our National Parks and the countryside. But they are seemingly less regarded and celebrated – although hopefully the last two years of the Pandemic have made us appreciate how valuable they are. How many unknown places of beauty did you discover on your hour-long walks during the three lockdowns and beyond?

The National Park City movement encourages and enables us to look at our cities as a holistic entity, integrating people and the planet through our built and natural environment. It’s not just about planting more trees, achieving net zero and creating a Nature Recovery Network throughout England in line with the Government’s drive to build back better and greener, post pandemic (which in light of ongoing political and global events looks less likely by the day). But it’s also about nurturing and protecting the relationship between us and nature, wildlife and their habitats, ensuring clean air, healthy rivers and waterways, galvanising outdoor play and learning, protecting and using our public spaces, green spaces for our physical and mental health.

Planning National Park Cities

So how does planning sit within this? Well in a number of ways. Whilst most LPAs already have policies within their Local Plans that cover the protection of wildlife corridors, the retention and replacement of trees and some also include sustainability policies that cover urban heat islands, there is little else. They tend to be disjointed and there is no all encompassing initiative linking all this together. Yet that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about conjoining our green and blue spaces as part of wider networks and imaginative mapping systems.    

The National Parks City movement is as much about protecting the spaces that we have, by providing them with a legitimate value. In the relentless drive towards new house building at all costs, we need to think about the value of these spaces and protect them, and where they are legitimately given over to new development, how we can enhance them to better provide for a range of activities and needs. 

As custodians of our environment and its protectors for future generations, as part of the projects we collectively design, promote, support and develop, we should be thinking about how we better connect with existing green and blue space; how we can improve landscaping and biodiversity on our sites and generally enhance the natural world around us as an integral part of the schemes not just as an afterthought. Who doesn’t want to make the places that they live ‘greener, healthier and wilder’. Who doesn’t want to ensure the sites they develop have a lasting valuable legacy long beyond the end of their involvement (we don’t just mean a financial one, think people and planet).  There are so many competing interests at play within the built environment and so much short term thinking that this probably does have to come from grass roots action and the collaboration of people across the city. But importantly it can also come from us, the multitude of players operating within the development industry.

It is the ambition of World Urban Parks that a family of 25 National Park Cities is established by 2025. Could Bristol become one of them? Why not?