There is no reason for wilderness to be separated from urban space by more than a step. The problem is one of isolation and accessibility. How many people can afford to live near a park in London, San Francisco, New York or Paris? The solution is as bizarrely simple as the problem is intractable. Governments should buy derelict property, all of it. They should demolish whatever structures are there and if it is near a place where people work, they should build new apartment buildings and auction off 30 year leases to property management companies. The key here is to only build them, not finish them. The buildings themselves will last for hundreds of years, and only a government can hold out for such a long period of depreciation. The fittings and fixtures will only last a few years, so private industry can manage the investment. If there is no work nearby, there is no need for a building. What’s weird about this is that good apartments make good offices, but not the other way around. No one should ever build an office building on purpose. They are cheap and shitty.
There are over 4,000 cities in the world with over 100,000 people in them. The vast majority of these cities could hold 5 million people within their geographical boundaries, with 50% green space, such is the poverty of imagination and consciousness in 20th century urban development.
What is important is that government not try to provide housing for the poor, but to sell housing to the rich. People will move into their old houses. Not only will these houses be better than anything that could be purpose-built for low-income occupants, it avoids the administrative burden of managing an oversubscribed and underfunded program that can’t possibly put homes in the right place. It is also crucial that development forms a density spiral, like a galaxy or a whirlpool, with green space starting near the centre and expanding as the spiral expands. The buildings themselves might also be spirals, but this gets into complicated architecture.
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.
Unlike most large parks, London is not separate from people and their houses and cars. But that’s not a bug, Raven-Ellison says; it’s a feature.
“London is the most biologically diverse place in the United Kingdom precisely because people are there,” he says. Why shouldn’t that amazing diversity be valued alongside that of more remote and less altered places?
“Rainforest national parks are very different from desert national parks,” he says. “A city is very different from both of those but it is not necessarily less valuable.” By redefining what a park can be, Raven-Ellison hopes to open our eyes to the nature that’s already around us—and expand our ambition for adding more.
Raven-Ellison is not the only one calling for an end to the conceptual estrangement between humanity and the five million or so species with which we share the planet. With more than half the human population already living in cities, and that fraction increasing every year, there’s a growing movement to recognize the importance of urban nature.
Timothy Beatley, an urban planner at the University of Virginia, heads up a consortium of “biophillic cities”— including Singapore; Wellington, New Zealand; Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain; Birmingham, UK; San Francisco, Portland, and Milwaukee—that have committed to weaving ever more greenness, diversity, and wildness into the urban fabric. The group’s moniker derives from biologist E. O. Wilson’s 1986 book Biophilia. In it Wilson argued that humans have an innate love of nature, a connection to other species that derives from our long evolutionary history of living among and relying upon them.