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London needs less concrete and more nature

In this ninth blog in the series about the 'A More Natural Capital' environmental manifesto for the next Mayor of London, Tim Webb, Trustee at the National Park City Foundation, makes the case for a greener, healthier and wilder city for the health and wellbeing of all Londoners.

April 2021

Rolling down a grassy slope, kicking-up autumn leaves and jumping in puddles are activities every young Londoner should experience. With one in every five homes in the capital lacking any outdoor space, the challenge is to ensure there are enough high quality green spaces to match demand.

There are more than 9.4 million people living in London, while at the last official count in 2019, there were 8 million trees (0.93 of a tree each). The UK average, calculated in 2015, was 47 trees per person. Well behind the 182 trees per person in France or the 1,494 trees per Brazilian, which itself is dwarfed by Canada’s 8,953 trees per citizen. It is a little unfair to compare a city with a country but even if you take a similar sized city like Vancouver, London falls well behind; having a Green View Index (GVI) of 12.7% compared with Vancouver’s 25.9%. Paris manages 8.8% even with a population density more than four times that of London!

Our capital city needs more green space. More importantly, Londoners need more green space. The pandemic lockdown brought home just how important it is for physical and mental wellbeing. More people from dense areas of London died of the coronavirus than from wealthier areas well served by parks and green space. London’s poorest areas have the least green space.

The ‘More Natural Capital’ environmental manifesto for the next Mayor of London calls for the creation of more parks with facilities and resources designed to meet the needs of local communities to improve public health and the quality of people’s lives. Having somewhere outdoors for exercise or where you simply enjoy being in nature is good for your health. To be more precise, living in greener urban areas is associated with lower probabilities of disease, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and mental distress.

There is also evidence from greener areas of lower infant mortality rates and improved cognitive development in young children. It is hard to argue against calls for more and better parks and green spaces. Creating it would be a step forward but improving access for all would be a huge leap.

London’s parks are for all Londoners irrespective of sex, race, age, ability, religion or sexuality. Everyone has the right to enjoy natural spaces for relaxation, exercise, quiet contemplation, family time, hanging-out with friends or exploring and connecting with the wealth of plants, insects and other wildlife living in our capital.

Natural spaces have been underfunded for years. Paying the true cost of maintaining them to a good standard will require substantial investment. If London’s next Mayor were to commit to creating a hundred tranquil, traffic-free areas in existing or new parks and green spaces, especially in deprived areas, Londoners health would benefit. That would also reduce the pressure on London’s overstretched NHS and key workers.

For too many decades we have invested in the wrong things at the expense of our community assets. Our manifesto asks for the next Mayor of London to take the long-term view and double the funding currently available through the Greener City Fund for community green space projects, enabling specific programmes for disadvantaged communities and for schools to connect children with nature. We also need to review other funding streams to ensure they deliver beneficial and inclusive climate, nature and health outcomes. Establishing a London-wide ‘green living’ social prescribing programme to connect people with local green and blue spaces would help to improve public health and reduce health inequalities between London’s diverse communities. Social prescribing is an increasingly attractive approach for health care professionals looking to address health issues through non-clinical means, such as encouraging patients to get active in natural surroundings.

The Mayor of London’s office, together with the National Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund commissioned a set of ‘natural capital accounts’ which concluded that for every £1 invested in parks by boroughs, £27 of benefits are realised. That’s an enormous return for society. What could possibly be more important for Londoners than a greener, healthier and more biodiverse wild London?

Tim Webb is a Trustee at the National Park City Foundation.

Follow @LondonNPC and @AMoreNaturalCap.

To read all the blogs in this series that explores the issues in the 'A More Natural Capital' manifesto, click here or visit our dedicated twitter feed @AMoreNaturalCap. You can also learn more about the leading candidates' stance on environmental issues at the Mayoral Environmental Debate on Wednesday 21 April.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.