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What is a National Park City? And what could it mean for Southampton?




If you hear the term ‘National Park’, the first thing that might come to mind is a picture of wild and open green space, with a rich variety of wildlife, and an array of trails and outdoor activities to explore. In essence, the opposite of citylife. Because of this, you might wonder how a city could be regarded as a type of National Park, or what this might look like. To answer these questions, it’s worth exploring exactly what a national park is. From there we can begin building a picture of possibilities of National Park Cities as a new vision for what urban life can and should look like.


What is a National Park?


In the UK, National Parks originated in the 1950s. These are expansive areas legally recognised as spaces of exceptional beauty. According to the National Parks and Access to Countryside Act (1949) they have three purposes: to enhance beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage, to promote opportunities for public understanding and enjoyment of national parks, and finally to foster the economic and social wellbeing of local communities within them, whilst conserving their natural and cultural assets. 



Building National Park Cities


The National Park City movement began taking shape around 2013, as a reimagining of what both national parks and cities could and should be. It is foregrounded in the purposes laid out for National Parks, to create and promote cities that prioritise the integration of non-human species into urban life, ultimately aiming to enhance residents' quality of life through increased access to nature, improved environmental sustainability, and promotion of biodiversity in spaces that are shared. It seeks to create vibrant and resilient urban environments where people and wildlife can thrive together.


What could National Park City status mean for Southampton?


The National Park City movement was brought into Southampton in 2021, by us - a small passionate group of local residents. In 2023, we were nominated as a rising National Park City, recognition of our efforts to date as well as signifying just how close we are to obtaining National Park City status - joining just two other cities across the world with this status. But what might this mean for Southampton? We see a whole host of benefits, but here is just a taster:


1. Celebrating and conserving urban biodiversity

One of the cornerstones of the National Park City ethos is the celebration and conservation of urban biodiversity. In Southampton, an astounding 52% of our city consists of green and blue spaces. These areas serve as vital habitats for a diverse array of plant and animal species, many of whom have been resident much before humans habitants, and who contribute to the natural and ecological heritage of the city and beyond. National Park City status would further elevate efforts to protect and enhance these natural assets, ensuring that the nature of which we are part of can continue to thrive, even within the city’s boundaries.



2. Improved outdoor recreation

Embracing the outdoors is a significant aspect of the National Park City vision. Southampton, with its abundance of parks, nature reserves and waterways, already offers numerous opportunities for outdoor activities. National Park City status would likely bring more initiatives and resources to develop and promote outdoor recreation, making it easier and more enjoyable for residents to engage with nature on a regular basis. This could mean more community gardens, healthier rivers and streams, improved and more accessible walking and cycling paths, and enhanced recreational facilities, encouraging a healthier and more active lifestyle for everyone.


3. Resilience in the face of the Climate Crisis

Our climate is changing rapidly. Even locally, there are signs that it is catching up with us. Cities need to be greener, bluer, and more biodiverse to maintain resilience against the threats of climate change. National Park City status can help Southampton prioritise these challenges, and work towards addressing them by promoting sustainable urban planning and development practices. Green roofs, rain gardens, urban forests and enhancing the health of the Itchen to maximise its role in urban cooling are just a few examples of how cities can adapt to changing climate conditions while enhancing biodiversity and improving the quality of life for residents.


4. Economic benefits

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, a greener city can and does have economic payoffs. Investments in green infrastructure can lead to substantial economic benefits, including reduced fuel costs, reduced healthcare costs, new job creation in sustainable sectors as well as increased property values for residents and businesses alike. Moreover, adoption of economic models such as doughnut economics can support a sustainable economic system, one that ensures that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and water to social equity and political voice), whilst also ensuring humanity does not overshoot its pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems.


5. Prioritising connection

A National Park City is not something that is given to us, but something that is grown from within. As such it relies on people to come together to make it happen. Our vision is for a National Park City that prioritises the reconnection of people with each other and with nature. In today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world, fostering a sense of community and connection is more important than ever. In Southampton, this could translate into more positive placemaking practices across the city - people coming together to steer ownership and stewardship of common spaces, events, celebrations, rituals, more opportunities for informal education and skills sharing. Such efforts can strengthen community bonds, enhance mental well-being, physical health, local opportunities and instil a sense of pride and ownership in local home-grown resources.



How do we get there?


Achieving National Park City status for Southampton is an ambitious but attainable goal that requires concerted effort from the entire community. It involves community engagement and awareness, collaboration with local policymakers, businesses , agencies and groups across the city to pool resources and unite towards a collective vision, reimagine and initiate projects that work towards restoring habitats and other natural resources for biodiversity, and much more.


Becoming a National Park City is a transformative journey that requires collective effort and commitment to create a greener, healthier, and more connected city. The path to National Park City status is not just about achieving a title; it's about cultivating a way of life that values nature, community, and sustainability. As we move forward, let's embrace this vision and work together to make Southampton a place where people and nature thrive in harmony. Our journey begins now, and with each step, we bring our city closer to becoming a National Park City.

And we need all the support we can get to make this happen. Find out more about volunteering with us or supporting local initiatives in other ways here.


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