Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Daniel Raven Ellison on “what if London were a National Park City?”

This is a website about the power of “what if?”, and how, in a time of existential challenges, we might take “what if?” ideas and make them a reality. “What if we tackled climate change with imagination, courage and positivity?” is one such question that runs through all our blogs here. But I have been deeply impressed by the work of Daniel Raven Ellison and his efforts to try to get the city of London designated as a ‘National Park City’. As we’ll see, it is a powerful “what if”, one that opens up the imagination and all manner of possibilities.

Daniel describes himself as a “guerilla geographer”, is a National Geographic explorer, and as a former geography teacher, he has done many projects where he walks across entire cities, trying to experience and represent the size of the city, the distribution of its deprivation, and other factors too. A few years ago, with his son, he set out to visit all of the UK’s national parks. It set him wondering why it is that across the world, every major kind of habitat and landscape are recognised with the family of National Parks apart from cities.

London, he reasoned, is arguably the most biologically diverse region of the UK, so why is that urban wildlife of less value than rural wildlife? Why is a city less valuable than a rainforest, or a desert? It wasn’t that an urban area was missing from our worldwide family of National Parks, he went on to consider, it’s more that National Park thinking is missing from our large urban areas. And so the question of “what if London were to become a National Park City?” was born. What a great question. But not content to have just come up with a great “what if?” question, he has spent the last 4 years trying to make it happen. When we chatted, I started by asking him how he then moved towards spreading that idea, and trying to involve other people, and trying to move towards making it a reality?

“I wrestled with the idea for about six months before I made it public at all, because I found the idea very challenging. I tested the idea on lots of people, saying, “Well what if London was a national park?” A lot of people just said that it was a ridiculous idea, to be honest. But what was interesting was, that whether or not it was two minutes, or whether or not it was two days, or two weeks, the vast majority of people then came back and said, “Actually, no, that makes a lot of sense”.

So we started doing a number of different things to open up people’s imaginations. We did a petition to start with, asking the Mayor of London to make London a National Park. Actually it very quickly became that we wanted London to become a National Park City, not a National Park. But to support that campaigning we did things like create mapping to show London as a National Park.

We started creating these guerrilla signs for footpaths, and brown signs for entry paths into the city to start helping to unlock people’s imagination around how an urban area could be a National Park. Worked with over 100 students from Queen Mary University, London, who as part of a Geography project went right across the city, photographing it as a National Park according to the different criteria of what a National Park needed to be.

We got these 33 posters, one for each Borough in London, with lots of photography, put up in the Mayor’s office. So then the Mayor of London, and lots of politicians, were walking past these posters every day for a few weeks, which then helped to unlock imagination further. I could go through four years of campaigning, but we also did things like have a big event very early on at Southbank, in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, for a few hundred people, where we just asked the question, “What if London was a National Park?”

That got a few hundred people asking that question, and from there we then crowd funded a newspaper proposal that was printed 30,000 times. We used the newspaper intentionally as something which would disrupt the normal lines of how the internet works, and would reach new people in the audiences, got them to as many local councillors as possible. Saying to them, “Well, what if we made London a National Park City?” as we were saying it was then – rather than designated by central government from the top down, a National Park City which is declared from the grassroots up, and is really envisioned and enacted by millions of people, rather than just a few people.

Crowd funding that proposal brought even more individuals and organisations into understanding what it was we were trying to achieve. And then we had this conversation that lasted really over the last three years, of trying to recruit the majority of London’s elected politicians, plus the Mayor of London. The only way we could really do that was through literally thousands and thousands of conversations of explaining and negotiating. A big part of that was really asking the same question, “What if your street… what if your ward… what if your Borough thought of itself far more as being part of a National Park City connected to a much greater landscape rather than in a more isolated way?”

The question of “what if”, the question of Imagineering and imagining possible futures, but in a super flexible way, has been absolutely critical to getting our campaign to where we are now.

So first of all you had a big “what if” question. You had a programme that was about bringing people’s attention to that idea in creative, playful, unexpected ways. You had a big narrative, like that big question that is able to shift people’s sense of what’s possible. At one point you had an invitation for people to actually put their hands in their pockets and support it and to help that into being. And then at a certain point, once you’d built that certain degree of momentum, then there was an invitation to the powers that be to get involved on your terms, not on their terms? Would that be right, and have I missed any kind of crucial elements or stages?

In terms of saying about people getting involved, on what terms people get involved, we were in a very interesting meeting recently around how we launched the London National Park City, which we’re planning to happen next year now, in spring 2019. There were some government actors in the room who were basically talking about there being a vision for London. And I was very keen to point out that the London National Park City is not a vision for London that comes from a place, or the vision for London. It’s that there are 9 million contested visions for London.

We all collectively agonise in our different ways around the many different Londons that we will co-create and that will exist on multiple planes at the same time, as people imagine the city in different ways, and contribute to it in different ways. But the key thing here is that any contribution is a contribution, and different people can contribute different things.

A really great example is that in our lobbying we lobbied for the Mayor of London to share an aim with us, to make the majority of London physically green. Currently 47% of London is physically green. Another 2.5% is blue, so the rivers, the canals, the ponds, and so on. So about 0.5% of London is needed to make half of London green and blue. One way you can do that is if everyone was to transform 1 square metre of grey space into green or blue space.

Now in reality lots of people can’t contribute to that for various different reasons, but it’s symbolic of an idea where the only way we can really achieve that is by having policy at regional, government level support an action at council level. The intervention and planning that can happen within property developers and through business, but ultimately it is down to literally thousands of Londoners buying into that story, imagining that, enacting that, over – not the next few years – over tens of years, to be able to achieve that goal.

And then the benefits of doing that… You know, it’s not just that that’s a great story and a great aim, but actually the consequence of that can have big impacts in terms of people’s mental health, their physical health, a better resilience around being resilient to climate change in terms of heat, and water, and flooding and all these other issues as well.

It’s about providing a loose enough vision that is welcoming, and inviting, and is not so technocratic that it becomes alienating to people, and making it clear how people can contribute. But not making people feel bad if they don’t contribute as well.

So what if London was a National Park City? What would London being a National Park City make possible, and enable, that currently isn’t the case? What can it unlock?

So it’s a National Park that’s a city. It’s landscape scale thinking, just like you see within National Parks. It’s about better nature, better conservation, better connection to nature and outdoor heritage, but a striking difference is that in a rural National Park context you have relatively few people managing very large expansive areas of land. In the case of London, we have 9 million people, 14,000 species of wildlife, 3.8 million gardens, 3,000 parks.

You have a much wider range of people who can be contributors to the overall vision. Really what we’re talking about here fundamentally is radically improving people’s quality of life, their health, both the bio-abundance of wildlife in the city, but also biodiversity as well, and making the city far more resilient and sustainable in the things that it does.

As an example, last summer I did a 600 kilometre walk through London in a giant spiral, starting in the far north of the city, finishing at Temple which is one of the argued geographic centres of the city, walking with artists and activists and politicians and all kinds of people. When you do a big walk like that through all the Boroughs, you realise that there are hundreds of brilliant, outstanding projects.

The route of Daniel’s ‘big walk’.

One of the reasons why we can make London a National Park City is because firstly we can celebrate all those brilliant things that have happened to make the city the way that it is. All those successes through the top down policy of the Royal family, the Greater London Authority, the Corporation of London, councils, businesses, that over the last few years have made the city as green and biodiverse as it is.

But also to recognise and celebrate all the brilliant things being done over literally hundreds, if not thousands of years, by individual Londoners through grassroots action to make parks and gardens as green and biodiverse as they are as well. So it’s first about recognising all that’s been achieved, and it’s important to recognise that National Parks aren’t there just to recognise that things are great. They actually exist because we have problems in the world.

In my lifetime, the total number of wild animals on the planet has halved, one in seven species in the UK is at risk of extinction.  One in seven children in London hasn’t even been to a green space with their parents in the past year, despite the great benefits we know exist from doing those kinds of things. So the second part of the National Park, after celebrating, is acknowledging that we face many problems. And if you’re talking about Kruger with rhinos, or Virunga with gorillas, or the problems that we’re faced in terms of wolves in the United States with the creation of National Parks there, it’s the fact that we have problems, which is the second reason why we need the National Park City, to tackle issues like air pollution and so on.

But going on a big walk like that, what you see is that there is so much of the energy, so much the expertise, so many projects, but actually those projects are often far and few between. They’re not evenly spread throughout the city. Things aren’t organised in a sophisticated way through a geographic information system in terms of mapping out where the problems are, where the solutions could fill in. Maybe the biggest issue, beyond co-ordination, and the administrative, bureaucratic things that people often talk about, is actually just about how do we increase demand?

Because my point would be is that on the supply side, we actually have the green spaces, we have the grey spaces that are great for the peregrine falcons. We have the talent and the expertise, possibly more in London than in any other city in the world, both in terms of quantity and expertise. But what we don’t have is a public who are demanding better quality in terms of biodiversity.

Just take the point of children: parents going into schools and demanding, because they understand the benefits to their childhood development and to their health and to their education, to have more outdoor learning. What the National Park City can do is raise the game by raising expectations, and communicate through city scale campaigning. When I say campaigning, I don’t just mean communications, I also mean support in terms of, where possible, providing help to people, whether that’s in terms of expertise or funding or co-ordination. But campaigning to require a greater demand of a high quality environment.

If we raise those expectations and we have more people demanding better, then the supply side will fill itself quite nicely. But at the moment there’s a lot of what I call ‘foie gras environmentalism’ going on, where essentially people are saying, “It’s good, so have it” without really making the case.

Look at libraries; they had a similar approach. “It’s good, so have it”, but they didn’t reinvent themselves, or try to increase demand for libraries. And that’s one of the reasons why libraries faced a problem as well as clearly some of the ideology around our political system. That’s one of the key things the National Park City can offer. It can offer increasing demand through opening up people’s imaginations, by daring people to dream the possible. But also offering a road map for people to actually then contribute to that in a sophisticated way.

I was just in Belgium for a few days, visiting Transition projects there which were amazing, and there’s a guy there I did a talk with called Olivier De Schutter who was the UN Rapporteur on Food for seven years. In the talk he used this really interesting term, he talked about “the partner state”. Talking about how the role of the state was to support bottom up projects, and their role was help where they can, and to remove obstacles, and to act as a partner, rather than top-down. I understand that Sadiq Khan has been very supportive of this as the Mayor of London. I wonder if you could just say a bit about how you built and how you cultivated that relationship?

I’m doing a really interesting project at the moment in Hackney, separately from the London National Park City. Obviously professionally related. It’s interesting because if you come from a social perspective in terms of volunteering and community, then actually your needs and what you’re trying to achieve and how you achieve it may be very different to a landscape perspective.

If we want, for example, to reduce flood risk, improve the length of the time that our sewage systems will operate for – these serious challenges that the city faces – then sometimes where the energy and the expertise is around that community action, and where people’s priorities are around community action, don’t necessarily align with the problems that the landscape faces.

So I agree, it’s really important that the government does what it can to facilitate and open up opportunities and give permission for people to be activists. A big challenge in general in London, which we could talk about more if you want, is that essentially if people were just given permission they’d go and do things, but everyone feels like they’re not allowed to do anything. But sometimes these things don’t overlap.

Sometimes the need from a landscape perspective is not where the energy is to deliver those landscape outcomes or those wildlife outcomes. Equally sometimes you have lots of energy around community of landscape, which is almost unbalanced compared to where it may be needed.

The grassroots is absolutely fundamental to the success of the London National Park City. Without a doubt. It’s why we can do it. It’s how we can make it successful. But there also needs to be government, and even opening up new kinds of market forces potentially, in those spaces where there is not the current grassroots efforts that you might want to see in those spaces. Maybe there will be in the future.

You’ve done such a beautiful job of telling a narrative which appeals to government, to communities, to individuals, to business, to media. What are the qualities do you think of a story? Because very often when people come driven by a need to change something, they still have both their feet in that activist world of needing to speak in a particular language, which actually often alienates some people. What would you say were the key qualities of the language that you’ve used to make this feel so inclusive?

It’s interesting because quite often people separate the city out according to the jobs people do, or where they work, or maybe different issues of conflict or ideologies. But there are key things that we have in common, whether you’re on the dole or whether you’re an elitist banker. You may both really quite like gardening, and you both want your child to go to a school where hopefully they do x amount of outdoor learning maybe.

You may quite like to take your dog for a walk. You definitely both want better health and less air pollution. It’s speaking to these things but being open enough and flexible enough to know that different people might want to do those things in different ways. That’s really important. With the National Park City idea, you can be a free runner, and love expressing your freedom by running over concrete, and maybe bumping into a peregrine falcon and enjoying the city that way. That’s great for your health, and it’s great for the city and it’s politically an assertion that speaks to what happened at Kinder Scout mass trespass. That is a contribution, and that’s great.

Then there are other people who are going stand-up paddling on the canal, or they are growing food in their gardens, and all these things are contributions towards this bigger vision. But it’s about recognising the individuals, and allowing them to be seen as individuals, and see those things we have in common, rather than trying to separate us out. A really good example of that is around this challenge around property developers, in that there’s lots of frustration in London specifically about property developers creating properties that feel really expensive, exclusive, they cut people out.

Quite often they look like they’re building on spaces where people might think that the biodiversity is decreasing if it’s going up, who knows, depending on the particular development. But it would be ridiculous to have a proposition which was about transforming London’s landscape, beyond the 33 Boroughs, beyond the M25, and to exclude these people who are doing some of the most transformative, cutting edge things within the city at this time.

You have to include everyone and the people who I speak to who are property developers, quite often their ‘in point’ for thinking about the National Park City is actually them as an individual wanting to be part of it. Rather than an organisation. The organisation follows later. The organisation is not first.

One of the things that I loved that you did was that beautiful map showing London without any buildings. Just London as green spaces. I’ve only seen the online version, not a paper version of it, but even that’s absolutely beautiful. I wonder to what extent art, design, graphics, the kind of visual side of things, how pivotal that has been to what you’ve been doing?

It’s interesting because people are used to seeing maybe a Tube map of London, and then they walk between Leicester Square and Covent Garden, which is a 2 minute walk. But their view of the city is distorted by the Tube map, as good as the Tube map is.

Or they’ll drive and they’ll use an A-Z and they can only see a page at a time, but it’s all about roads. And you know, where are the buildings, and where are the gardens? Or you might use Google maps, which is better, as you then have satellite view, but again, you only see a little bit of the city at a time.

What our maps have done – we’ve created different maps – I think the one you’re describing where it shows all the gardens, all the green spaces, is it that it reveals that very nearly half of London is green. For many people that awakens their imaginations. When they know how the story that we’re told as children – that the countryside is where all the wildlife is, and that that city is terrible for wildlife – the fact that actually because of pesticides and herbicides and monoculture, that swathes of the countryside is far worse for wildlife than big sections of cities. People get that, the penny drops and there’s a bit of an epiphany moment about how this can work and how we can make the city better. But it’s seeing that on a map that helps people to understand that the city is a landscape.

One thing we did last year was we published the first map that’s the size of an OS Explorer Map. It’s about a metre squared, and it shows all of Great London, to beyond the M25, as a single sheet of paper. You can see all the rivers, you can see all the parks, you can see in one place all the major footpaths that connect the city up. The Capital Ring, the London loop, the Thames footpath. And rather than having to use 4 sheets of OS paper, or scroll around on a screen, suddenly you start to see London as a landscape. But actually I would challenge us to think bigger than that because when planners are talking about urban design, they’re talking about transport and housing in the context of the South East region, or as far as people are willing to commute. If it’s as far as people are willing to commute, then that means that you could argue that to some level London stretches to Cambridge and to Bristol and to Brighton.

Ecologically for me London certainly, you could argue, stretches (in terms of influence on it, and to it), to the watershed, which goes 200 miles west and 100 miles north to south. But people don’t think about the city in terms of the watershed. Then you then consider beyond that. That if we could get people thinking at a landscape scale about London, beyond that to the watershed, but also thinking about how what people consume and goes into the river could end up in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. London’s footprint isn’t just the watershed, or the South East region with its spaces it influences, but actually it’s everything that we consume from around the world, and everything that we pollute that goes elsewhere in the world, is also part of London. That we could potentially shift over 50 or 100 years, maybe, to people not just thinking about the city in terms of what they can physically see, but perhaps have a heightened awareness and a greater imagination of how they in their bodies, they in their house, they in their city, consume the world but also influence the world as well.

There’s already the London National Park City in textbooks, in Britain and in China. I would love to see all children in London not only doing outdoor learning, all the time, but for there to be a really powerful London National Park City-inspired curriculum that helps to bring those kinds of ideas into people’s imagination, so that the level of environmental literacy in 20 years from now would be one where hopefully young people are far more creative and imaginative about what the city can be, but also what the world can be as well.

If somebody from a Transition group for example were to ring you up and say, “We’ve got this big what if question, we’re going to look at what if our city produced most of its own food within its nearest land, or we want to be a completely energy self-sufficient city, or what if we had our economy operated in a completely different way”, which we’re starting to see in lots of different places now. If people came to you and said, “We want to do this big what if question” what advice would you give them for how to really ground that?

Do you know I’d be really tempted to try and take a philosophy – one that I take with the London National Park City and am really trying to grow as much as possible – to be inspired by the environment and act for the environment, but to understand that it is culture and people that will drive that change.

And many people will run alongside the canal, and want the canal to be clean, but not necessarily care about nature. I’m doing a project at the moment to make a street much greener. 95% of the people who are involved are not there because of the green. They’re there because they want to meet their neighbours. They want an excuse to meet their neighbours. They’re there for culture.

In terms of the campaign in Glasgow for London National Park City, they were saying, “How do we do this?” I was saying straight off the bat, “Do your first big event at the Art College. Get it out of the environmental movement as quickly as possible.” Because the thing is that – and I’m not saying that the environmental movement is not involved, clearly I’m an environmentalist – I don’t think that many of the people who are trying to drive environmental change are necessarily the culture makers which will inspire the audience.

There’s the scale of audience that is needed for the kinds of transformations we’re talking about. There are lots of well-known celebrities who are very good at championing individual animals, or those kinds of things. But in terms of bringing them into a wider message, that would actually properly protect habitat for those animals, or properly make cities and towns more sustainable, or create the energy transformation that’s needed to make us more resilient, where is that energy?

When we think about these projects from very early on, get artists, poets, culture makers, involved straight off. And another great example of that is that with the London National Park City, like many environmental initiatives, a challenge is pulling in different audiences and different groups of people who wouldn’t necessarily normally engage with environmental issues. We try to reflect the city itself. You do get the diversity of interest and culture within issues around housing, crime, a range of different social issues. But you don’t within the environment. But environment cuts through everything.

So all I’d say is that at the start of any of these projects think, really care actually, about who is fronting them. And if necessary, step back as quickly as possible to allow some of those cultural leaders to step forward who can help to tell that story, but using that word ‘story’ in the broadest sense. So that might be mapping, it might be photography, it might be images. And being really positive. People understand what the problems are. The problems are often so big and so alienating that your imagination can’t cope with it, so it shuts the brain off and you don’t make progress.

People have to understand what they could do to make a contribution. Especially when people are so time poor, so busy, quite often impoverished. It has to be desirable.

One question I’ve asked everybody that I’ve interviewed has been, if you had been elected the Prime Minister at the last election, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make Britain Imaginative Again’ – so you had had a sense that this was a time when we needed our collective imagination to be at its most vigorous and vibrant, and that wasn’t the case, and that it needed to be prioritised, across education, and policy and daily life and home life, and everything – I wonder what might be some of the things you might do in your first 100 days in office?

Oh, that’s a really big question! You should have given me advance warning of that one. That’s a fun question. First thing I would do is I would very quickly, rapidly, prototype an Imagineering conference, confluence for the UK on day one or two, to find out what other people think would be good answers to that question, and pool all those ideas together.

You know, I used to be a Geography teacher. One of the first things I’d say is probably about what can happen in schools and colleges. Rethinking the way that assessment works. That wouldn’t bring transformation overnight but having less pressure in that school system and allowing more creativity within our young people would be transformative.

On a street level, let’s just flip all that signage that says you can’t do stuff in places. Make it really clear to people the empty canvasses of what they can do in places. If we could open up the landscape so that people really understood the necessary environmental controls and limits that are needed for places, but just really free up the landscape so that people can take ownership of places and do things outside their front doors, on their streets. That could really empower people and give people the agency to do things in their neighbourhoods that would then unlock other opportunities as well. So I’d do that, as well.

That’s probably what I’d do across the policy spectrum really. I’d want to make sure that we had really tight controls around the environment, around where they’re really needed, but I’d also want to really look at ways in which we can make it make it far clearer how people could just go and do stuff. That’s a very broad answer.

There’s a way to bring people together to ask people that question at a local level but that’s not just about neighbourhood planning but is genuinely about asking people what they would like, and what they would like to do. But dare I say it, having a small amount of budget there for those communities to use, even just a small amount. Something for push against and pivot off, and to negotiate, very collectively agonise about how they use this money. So there’s something really tangible, so whether that’s a physical space, whether that’s a little bit of money. Something that can pull people together around something that everyone could imagine how they could potentially influence.

If you could do that in every neighbourhood it could be really transformative. But I don’t know exactly what that thing is. But the key thing is about having something tangible that people can touch, and allowing them the opportunity to have a say over it.

Any last thoughts about imagination and how to invite imagination and hold space for imagination that I haven’t asked you the right question for?

In my personal imagination, it’s been really important to have a combination of imagination and determination. Imagination is really important. I’m plagued by imaginative ideas. Literally plagued! Have to write things down and have lists. Quite often it’s the best ideas that worm their way into my mind and come back again.

If they stick there then I know that I probably need to do something about them. But without determination and collaboration to make something of them, then they’re just dreams really. We need people to dream the possible. We have to dream big. We have to dream what’s doable. But that imagination has to be coupled with collaboration and determination. Otherwise it’s beautiful, but in a box.


  1. John Ingleby
    April 9, 2018

    Rob, I think this is the best of your many excellent blog posts. It is literally a comprehensive ToDo list for anyone contemplating changes in their locality. I specially like “… very early on, get artists, poets, culture makers, involved…”

  2. Rob Hopkins
    April 9, 2018

    Thanks John. Well if you enjoyed this one, stand by for another in a similar vein next week! Thanks for the kind words.

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