Photograph by dePablo/Zurita/laif/Redux
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People spend the afternnoon at Greenwich Park and enjoy the London skyline. London is set to become the first National Park City. The idea is that citizens will make cities greener, healthier, and wilder to get more people to spend more time outside.

Photograph by dePablo/Zurita/laif/Redux

London to become first ‘National Park City.’ What’s that mean?

London is the the first city to sign on to a new drive to convince cities and their residents to be greener, healthier, and wilder.

On Monday London will be officially confirmed as the world’s first National Park City. Saturday kicks off a free, eight-day festival celebrating the city’s outdoor spaces. Along with the Mayor of London, organizations and individuals will sign a London National Park City Charter demonstrating their support for making the city greener, healthier, and wilder.

Newcastle upon Tyne will also be launching its campaign for that city to become the United Kingdom’s next National Park City. Glasgow, Scotland has already started its campaign.

The National Park City Foundation (NPCF), in partnership with World Urban Parks and Salzburg Global Seminar, created the first International Charter for National Park Cities (NPC). While London is the first, NPCF is aiming to name at least 25 National Park Cities by 2025 and is already in discussion with other UK and world cities to help them gain NPC status.

The NPC idea is all about making cities greener, healthier, and wilder, says Daniel Raven-Ellison, a geographer and National Geographic explorer who originated the concept six years ago.

“What an amazing moment for London. Celebrating, honoring and recognizing the biodiversity and greenness of this great city,” said Jayne Miller, Chair of World Urban Parks. It’s a challenge to cities around the world to venerate, protect, and increase the green spaces, Miller said in a statement.

“We’re pretty excited about the NPC concept at the IUCN,” says Russell Galt, Director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Urban Alliance. “I was confused at first about it. IUCN has no category for it,” says Galt in an interview.

“Dan has kicked up a real storm of enthusiasm amongst people in London, including many who have never been involved in environmental issues before,” he says.

Wildlife cameraman Bertie Gregory takes the stage to share stories about his adventures photographing urban-jungle wildlife in England.

Now Londoners are celebrating the fact that they are making their city much healthier, greener, and more fun to live in.

Nature is in trouble and its future health is contingent on what happens in cities, says Galt. “Public enthusiasm and engagement in nature is extremely important.”

It turns out that London, a city of nine million—with 14,000 residents per square mile—is filled with wildlife—not just nightlife. Nearly 15,000 species live there, including eight species of bats, the largest population of stag beetles in England, and hundreds of bird species. There are almost as many trees in London as people and nearly half of its urban areas are either green or blue space, meaning rivers, canals, and reservoirs.

A city is a very different landscape than a rainforest national park, but “the foxes, falcons and other wildlife living in a city are no less valuable,” says Raven-Ellison.

It’s Londoners who are making their city more nature-rich and vibrant by filling balconies and yards with wildlife-friendly plants. Or growing vegetables and fruits in gardens and public spaces. Or covering concrete and brick walls with ivy. Or cutting small holes in fences to let hedgehogs roam the city. Or simply sharing stories about the hidden gems of nature they discovered in the city.

“More than 250 organizations in London are involved. Nine in ten Londoners support our aims of making the city greener, healthier, and wilder,” Raven-Ellison says.

America’s First National Park City?

Cities are dynamic places, sources of innovation and change, and they can be the places where people get excited about nature, said Scott Martin, Chair of World Urban Parks for North America. Why not go for a hike or take a canoe trip in a city? Most people understand that a nature-rich city is a better city to live in.

“Manhattan would not be very livable for families without Central Park,” says Martin in an interview.

Green places in cities bring a wide array of benefits from reducing air, water pollution, and flooding to absorbing carbon and cooling ever warmer cities. A number of studies document how those contribute to human well-being. A recent Danish study found that childhood exposure to green spaces, including urban nature, reduces the risk for developing an array of psychiatric disorders during adolescence and adulthood.

Japanese studies have shown that being in nature for a couple of hours—so-called forest bathing—enhanced our bodies’ natural killer cell activity. Other studies have documented stress reduction, reduced mortality, and improved cognitive development in children.

“It’s time for bold, audacious ideas and decisions. I think America’s first National Park City will be a mid-sized city with a visionary mayor who wants to make their city a great place for wildlife and people,” Martin says.

One of the challenges for a National Park City in the U.S. is understanding that it’s a city- and public-driven concept. It doesn’t need formal recognition, said Jonathan Bell, director for the Being Human Initiative at National Geographic Society. It will take some education and conversation to get the idea to take off, but it could redefine what it means to live in a city.

Among the benefits are public engagement in creating new places for nature and a newly defined sense of pride in one's city as a green city, Bell said in email.

“Nairobi and Capetown might be prime candidates given the high density of biodiversity of their regions. Places like Bogotá, Manaus, Seattle, Chengdu, Bandung, Chiang Mai, and Sabah are just a few cities that could be great candidates,” says Bell.

There’s an enormous global opportunity for urban settings to be places with thriving ecosystems and sustained biodiversity, he said.