One Man’s Plan to Transform a Major City Into a National Park

An ambitious project highlights the importance of urban nature.

View Images
St. James's Park is one of many greenspaces in London, a city that could serve as a model for urban nature.

What is a park? For most of us, a park is a place apart—a reserve of nature in a world increasingly dominated by human activities and arranged to fulfill human needs and desires. But a park is also for people— a place of refuge for the human soul, which tends to wither when long separated from green and growing things.
John Muir, the great naturalist, captured this dual purpose at the dawn of the national parks movement. “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity,” Muir wrote in 1901. Our concept of parks, especially in North America, Europe, and Australia, has remained largely unchanged since.
Daniel Raven-Ellison, a self-described “guerrilla geographer” and National Geographic explorer, would like to change it.
Raven-Ellison’s home isn’t the mountains—it’s London, a city founded in 43 AD, a metropolis today of almost nine million people, with 14,000 of them, on average, living in each square mile. Raven-Ellison is lobbying for the entire city to be declared a National Park.
In spite of its teeming streets and liberal use of concrete, he points out, London has many features we associate with parks. If you count not only the designated urban parks but also the backyards and the untended bits of land, the city is already 47 percent green space. What’s more, it’s highly biodiverse—and in many spots, quite wild.
A walk through Epping Forest at the edge of the city might turn up a badger, a bat, or a browsing fallow deer. Red foxes stroll the sidewalks and raise cubs in back gardens. Some 8.4 million trees dot the city: birch, lime, apple, sycamore, oak, hawthorn, and many more. The London Underground has even spawned its own biodiversity—Culex molestus, a mosquito that evolved into a new species in subway tunnels.