Is “National Park City” a useful idea?

While land tends to stay put, ideas about landscapes cross oceans easily enough. It does my American heart good when I read descriptions of national parks in other countries, because they typically fess up that we came up with the idea and did it first with Yellowstone. As it turns out, it wasn’t just a good idea for us in one place, so something that started as a single park has spread to nearly 100 countries.

Lake District: A National Park in Northern England since 1951. Basically our idea.

Barring some very quick proclamations and fancy footwork somewhere in the USA, though, we won’t have the first National Park City – that term was coined in London six years ago, and they’re awarding themselves the honor officially next month. So, what does it mean, and why are they pursuing it? Will the idea take root in other places around the globe? Should Minneapolis or Saint Paul follow London’s lead?

What is a National Park City?

From the project website:

“The working definition 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” (2015).

The National Park City Foundation is currently leading a piece of work to agree an international definition and typology for a National Park City.

The UK’s National Parks are mostly in rural areas, often with spectacular natural beauty, where people work together to protect natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage. In England and Wales they aim to:

  • Promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of their special qualities by the public
  • Conserve and enhance their natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage,and
  • Seek to foster the economic and social well-being of local communities within them
  • A National Park City recognises the value of urban life, habitats, landscapes, people and culture, and seeks to apply similar purposes to a whole city.

Just like in a rural National Park, a National Park City consists of a landscape as well as a vision, partnership and a community of people working together to look after and improve it. Unlike a rural National Park, the London National Park City does not have a traditional single top-down authority. Instead, it has a partnership and a large number of contributors. In London’s case this could become millions of people.”

The concept that a city landscape can be protected and enhanced like a National Park was developed by a London geography teacher in 2013. It rapidly grew in popularity and became part of Sadiq Khan’s mayoral platform (while also being supported by all of his rivals) in 2016. In March 2018, it was announced that London would – in fact – become a National Park City. A recent survey shows that the idea (albeit or perhaps because it’s still a bit vague) currently enjoys an 85% approval rate among Londoners. After six years of build-up, London National Park City will officially launch on July 22nd as part of a nine day festival with hundreds of free events across the city.

Is this a good idea?

Let the editorializing begin – yes, I think this is worth a shot. At the least, it’s a good idea for London. Four reasons why:

1. It advances an inclusive view of greenspace, natural beauty, and wildlife habitat. 

It’s easy for these issues to be thought of as the domain of a city’s parks department, and therefore not an area of responsibility (or opportunity!) for individual residents and other organizations. And that’s not true! In any city with a patchwork of public and private land ownership, it’s not just the resources on public land that matter for that community’s overall natural beauty, green infrastructure, water and air quality, wildlife habitat, etc. Limiting initiatives to silos based on who owns the land and how it’s being used misses that bigger picture. The National Park City effort is correct to offer a broader formulation – every garden, green wall, private plaza, and street tree matter because they all contribute to the greater good.

Valuable public realm, not a park. Canal and adjacent land owned by the Thames Water Authority, trees on adjacent private property.

2. It creates a useful umbrella for a lot of work that was already happening and has the potential to galvanize more.

London has 32 boroughs, 8.8 million people, and a dizzying number of organizations and initiatives related to natural and community resources. Any of that work that’s modest in scale and scope might naturally struggle to drive and sustain engagement. All of it can now be associated with a city-wide campaign that celebrates small grassroots projects. As long as that campaign enjoys broad political and public support, that’s a real asset. If I’m trying to get volunteers to my neighborhood clean-up for the eighth year in a row, you better believe I’m hitching my wagon to a buzzy broader campaign (and maybe even swag and cool t-shirts) instead of making a general plea about “the environment.” It offers a connection to a bigger picture that isn’t overwhelmingly big.

In a city with active competition between boroughs for bragging rights, I think the looseness of the model is intentional and potentially useful. With robust data gathering planned for the initiative overall, but flexibility in how local priorities are set, this creates the space for different priorities to gather momentum in different places within the city. This should create positive pressure on other boroughs to measure up to the good examples that are set.

3. It’s officially sanctioned but led by a non-profit. 

Government can’t do this work alone. Elected leadership changes, funding for “non-essential” projects is hard to come by, and it’s hard for a city of any size to be seen as leading a grassroots effort. A city could make these issues a priority by dramatically raising public funding for them, or by regulating specific changes to the built environment into existence. However, either of those would be heavy lifts, and the tone of the initiative would be completely different. I think an opt-in, civic partnership approach makes sense.

4. It’s seen as a grassroots alternative to mega-expensive, high-profile vanity projects.

At least one writer has described the London National Park City movement as “the grassroots alternative to the Garden Bridge” project. Remember the Garden Bridge? I had nearly forgotten about it! Then-Mayor Boris Johnson supported this private proposal for a £200m pedestrian bridge in central London that was going to be covered with trees and other greenery. The project would’ve required £60m in public funding to complete with the remainder raised by private fundraising, but when it was abandoned in 2017 £43m in public funds had already been spent. Yikes.

Full disclosure: I was unaware of the backlash, being thousands of miles away at the time, and I thought the renderings looked amazing. Closer to the ground, people obviously had serious and justified concerns with how Mayor Johnson set priorities, and saw Garden Bridge as emblematic of valuing flashy projects over broader citywide needs. As the fortunes of the Garden Bridge waned, the city was primed for a different, more grassroots approach.

Will the National Park City concept jump the pond? 

In case you missed it above, yes, the organizers are actively working on defining the standard for qualification as a National Park City *after* giving themselves the designation, which is a bit funny. But I think the framework for applying national park management principles to a city as a landscape is logical enough to have a real shot at succeeding. And I think it would be a mistake to see the conceptual looseness as wishy-washy or disingenuous – it’s allowed the London effort to have six years of build-up. Six years of asking people what they think National Park City should mean. That kind of authentic engagement is invaluable for a huge grassroots effort, and I think it won’t be possible to recreate that energy and process other places, at least not in the same way. But let’s say the local effort in London is deemed successful, and the standard they set for others is useful, reasonable, and meaningful. Will there be a first National Park City in the States?

Plazas: publicly owned, privately owned, whatever they are they’re part of a broader whole.

Absolutely. Right? Someone will go for it. There’s healthy competition between cities, mayors care about parks and recreation, and there are local philanthropic resources for these priorities in many cities across the country. The odds that the concept survives over the long haul are unknown, but – for now – it’s new and exciting. At worst, it ends up being a shorter-term campaign without obvious downsides.

Which city will pursue it first? There are stray mentions online about the National Park City Foundation considering San Francisco. I know! Boring old, foggy, expensive, two-season San Francisco. Who knows how it actually plays out in practice. Might they handpick a first round of cities as they announce the standard? Maybe. I wouldn’t be too surprised if there are cities preparing to announce plans to go for this designation later this year even before it’s nailed down.

Here’s my advice. The London effort has been very aggressive in seeking international press coverage, and that publicity is going to crescendo here shortly. The excitement generated in this moment will be useful to the cities that follow in London’s wake, but it will likely dissipate over time as the novelty of the idea wears off.

Any cities with park systems ranked in the Top 3 nationally and a national park running right through them should give it a think.