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As the city grows, it must stay green

Posted: Wednesday 7th December 2016 by James_Cracknell

Braeburn Park (credit Mathew Frith)Braeburn Park (credit Mathew Frith)

London's (human) population is at a record high and is growing higher still, but what does this mean for wildlife? James Cracknell investigates.

It’s official – more people now live in London than New York City. This surprising statistic, confirmed by data putting London’s population, at 8.67 million, above New York City’s 8.55 million, shows that the capital’s growth is outpacing not just the rest of Britain but many parts of the developed world. London’s population is now growing roughly twice as fast as its rival on the other side of the Atlantic, with the ten million landmark expected to be hit by 2030.

Green spaces play a much more important social role in places, such as large cities, where lots of people live...

Of course this raises all sorts of questions around housing, the economy, and public infrastructure. But what of our natural environment? How does rapid growth of the human population impact on the city’s non-human inhabitants?

A campaign to make London the country’s first-ever ‘National Park City’ was launched in 2014 by Daniel Raven-Ellison, a former geography teacher. He claims that: “A city park or garden can be more ecologically diverse and rich, and provide more pleasure to a community, than a much wider area of land somewhere more remote.”

His point, echoing the voices of urban ecologists for many years, is a valid one – green spaces play a much more important social role in places, such as large cities, where lots of people live. Numerous studies have shown the benefits to our personal wellbeing of having ready access to green space.

Daniel’s vision is of a London where “we all enjoy high-quality green spaces, the air is clean to breathe, it’s a pleasure to swim in its rivers and green homes are affordable”. It is a vision long articulated and shared by many conservation groups, not least London Wildlife Trust, which has been involved in the National Park City debate since soon after the project’s conception.

What is worth remembering in these discussions is not just how green London could become, but how green London already is. As much a part of the challenge to London’s future as the creation of new green spaces is the protection and conservation of those that we already have. This is a point which London Wildlife Trust has been making since our founding 35 years ago; the capital is a vibrant, green, biodiverse city – and we want it to stay that way.

Pied wagtail (credit James Cracknell)

If you’re not convinced, perhaps peering out of your window at grey slabs of concrete and wondering what all the fuss is about, let’s return to the comparison between London and New York. Comparing statistics between two different cities is difficult because discrepancies often exist between the methods used for gathering them, but since the (human) populations of these two cities are very similar in size, it is a useful comparison to make. And the difference is stark.

London boasts 8.3 million trees to New York’s 5.2 million, 3,000 parks to New York’s 1,900, and 144 designated nature reserves to New York’s 48. Perhaps these statistics are unsurprising when you consider that London’s boundaries extend to nearly twice the land area (1,572km2) as New York’s (789km2).

A much lower urban density in London (roughly half) allows more homes to benefit from outdoor garden space, particularly in the extensive suburbs of boroughs such as Enfield, Bromley, or Hillingdon. But even when you calculate the total green space of these two cities as percentages, London still out-greens New York. The capital is 47% green (739km2) compared to 37% in New York (296km2).

Data in New York suggests there are 3,500 wild species living in the city, including all known plants, invertebrates, and other animals. In London, meanwhile, there are 13,000 recorded species – in part explained by our longer history of record collecting.

But there is trouble ahead. In September a major report entitled State of Nature 2016, to which The Wildlife Trusts contributed, indicated that 15% of the UK’s species are threatened with extinction. On a global Biodiversity Intactness Index, the UK ranks among the 30 worst countries worldwide. The United States is among the 20 worst.

So while London is, quite rightly, described as a green city and a relatively biodiverse urban landscape, outdoing many other global cities, there is work to do to ensure that London’s status as a leading green – and wild – city is maintained during an era when the demands on its infrastructure are higher than ever before.

Bow Creek Ecology Park (credit James Cracknell)

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