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National Park City: the way to a greener London?

Woodland around Sydenham and Crystal Palace Woodland around Sydenham and Crystal Palace

In his draft Environment Strategy published this month, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has followed up on his commitment to support the London ‘National Park City’ initiative. CPRE’s branch for the area, CPRE London, supports the initiative. But not all in the planning world do. Blogger Andrew Lainton, for example, argues that the ‘National Park City’ idea ‘devalues London and devalues National Parks’.

The promoters of the ‘National Park City’ have always wanted to draw a clear distinction from a National Park. The National Park City website emphasises opportunities for city residents to be able to connect with nature, and has largely avoided questions of conserving natural beauty that would be more prominent in the rural landscape of our National Parks. But it also has clear messages about environmental improvement – a more physically green environment, better air and water quality and better connected wildlife habitats.

This is particularly relevant to CPRE for two reasons.

First, there is a significant amount of rural fringe land towards the edge of Greater London’s boundaries. The Green Belt, most of which is farmland, woodland or other open space, covers 22% of Greater London. The Environment Strategy gives a welcome reiteration of the Mayor’s commitment to protect the Green Belt. It also drops a tantalising hint of using the Green Belt for creating new woodland. The four things that CPRE would like to see more of in the Green Belt are woodlands, wetland, public access and food grown for local markets. Much of the Green Belt, both within Greater London and beyond, is a resource that, in future, could achieve National Park status on landscape merit. Some is already Regional Park; some – largely just outside Greater London’s boundaries – is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, already accorded equal status to National Park in terms of conserving scenic beauty.

Second, there is an exciting opportunity to visibly connect fragments of countryside - land that has never been developed - within London itself, in particular through more tree planting. London has relatively good levels of green space cover given its size. But on some measures of tree cover, London comes off poorly compared with other cities of comparable size or population density.

Treepedia, published at the end of 2016 by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, measures street tree cover in cities using Google Street View. Street trees have all kinds of benefits for society, including providing shade on hot days and filtering air pollution. But the website gave London a ‘green view index’ of 12.7%, considerably lower than Boston (18.2%), Singapore (29.3%) or Vancouver (25.9%).

There are tantalising glimpses of what a ‘National Park City’ could look like. To take just one example, in south east London where I live there are wonderful views of the ‘Great North Wood’ (pictured above). This is the subject of a new London Wildlife Trust Living Landscapes project covering the hills around Sydenham and Crystal Palace. Here, there are large undeveloped tracts where woodlands have grown back after centuries of exploitation. From many spots you can see the woodlands set against not only urban parks but tree-lined streets, residential gardens, green railway embankments, and cemeteries.

London is relatively low in population density, compared with other world cities such as Singapore. CPRE is also campaigning to show that we can use brownfield land in London more efficiently for new housing, through developing car parks, for example. This would save Green Belt and green space, but also encourage more use of public transport, walking and cycling. With good planning we can both increase densities and improve London’s countryside and green cover. Given London’s relative lack of street trees, this would suggest support for the work of Create Streets and others who are calling for more new homes to be built around patterns of streets.

I hope that the final London Environment Strategy will be ambitious. In particular, the GLA needs to do more to protect and enhance existing green space. More encouragement needs to be given to the new regional parks emerging in places like the Wandle Valley. CPRE’s report Our Green Belt: Worth Investing In last year called on local government to make wider use of the Lee Valley Regional Park model of managing land funded by a local environmental levy. The draft strategy suggests that the GLA is listening to this. Local authorities and developers should also do more to increase tree cover in connection with new developments. They are already under a duty to do so, though you wouldn’t know that from reading the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework.

These actions could make the 'National Park City' an initiative with a visible, lasting legacy.

With good planning we can both increase densities and improve London’s countryside and green cover.

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