Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, Scottish Wildlife Trust Trustee, Dr Kenny Taylor, makes a compelling case for designating Scotland's first urban national park.
Number 22: Designate Scotland's first Urban National Park
Sometimes I wonder if our National Parks are leading us astray. Not in the sense of losing track amidst the mountains, forests and wetlands of the Cairngorms or Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. More because – at worst – they reinforce the idea of natural beauty and nationally important landscapes and heritage as 'other' to where most people live and work.
Don't get me wrong; I'm all for singing the praises of Scotland's two National Parks. I've served my time in crowded rooms and stuffy committee meetings, both for the Scottish Wildlife Trust and as an individual campaigner, to help prepare the way for the Cairngorms National Park and then better understand and boost the biodiversity there. I've worked with local communities and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs park staff in both Callander and Killin to gather and share information about the history and heritage of those places with a wide audience. I've even had daunting, but memorable, experience of making the case to an all-party group of MPs and peers at Westminster for the Cairngorms to be nominated as a World Heritage Site.
So my worries don't stem from an inability to appreciate the beauties and benefits of our existing National Parks. Rather, they come from the niggling thought that perhaps, just perhaps, we've grown so used to being dazzled by such areas 'out there', away from towns and cities, that we risk being blind to what's right beside us in those same urban areas.
Think of the statistics. By the close of Victoria's reign, in 1901, more than two-thirds of Scots were already urban dwellers. The move from country to town had grown with the rise of industrialisation and the trend has continued ever since. Now, according to the Scottish Government's most recent figures in 2014, more than four in every five of us lives in a town or city. And something along those lines is now typical of our species.
More than half of humanity is now urban-based. So you could say that in ecological terms, urban areas are the 'type habitat' of Homo sapiens. So why the elevation of areas away from where we live as somehow the capercaillie's knees, while our chosen habitats remain the muddy rat's tail? Have we bought-in too strongly to a romantic notion (and I use the term advisedly, with a nod to Rousseau and many other philosophers and writers, Wordsworth included) who were justifiably repelled by the excesses of new industry and urban sprawl in previous centuries and sometimes less justifiably keen to keep the hordes of the new proletariat at a safe distance from the wild areas they so cherished.
But in the 21st century we reject the importance of urban wilds at the peril of our health, welfare and community cohesion. There's ample evidence now amassing that contact with the green and the wild in cities does a power of good for all age groups, including through improvements in mental health, fitness and even reductions in certain types of crime. So why not sing the praises of at least one large Scottish urban area, National-Park style?
Consider the four National Park aims set out through the National Parks (Scotland) Act in 2000, one of the first pieces of legislation passed after devolution:
- Conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area.
- Promote sustainable use of the natural resources of the area.
- Promote understanding and enjoyment (including enjoyment in the form of recreation) of the special qualities of the area by the public.
- Promote sustainable development of the area's communities.
All of those aims could apply to an urban area. But we trip-up through too tight a focus on those far-distant hills and glens. Think of the potential in Edinburgh, for example (big-hearted of me, since I'm a Glaswegian by birth, parentage and part of my upbringing). Picture Arthur's Seat, Salisbury Crags and Holyrood; picture the Water of Leith and Princes Street Gardens and the Castle Rock. To my eye, all are beautiful, inspirational, wildlife-rich parts of our capital, fairly reeking with opportunities for enjoyment and education and ripe for further initiatives to both conserve and boost cultural and natural heritage. I could apply the same logic to Glasgow too (and other cities and towns) given the brilliant mosaic of parks and other greenspaces in the 'Dear Green Place', with the mighty Clyde running through it and the Campsie Fells beyond to frame the city's northern fringe.
Why an urban National Park? It would be a statement of good faith; an acknowledgement of a renewed bond between people and nature; a call to action to do better, much better, to strengthen that bond in times ahead.
The romanticism of past centuries helped to (very, very slowly) found Scotland's two existing National Parks. In a bolder, more self-assured and creatively energetic Scotland, I suggest we need thinking also attuned to the realities of both people and wildlife in the here and now to make more rapid progress for the future.
An urban National Park, complementing rather than competing with the rural ones, would be an inspirational move. It would have international significance, not only in terms of practical action but also in showing that in Scotland, we can celebrate the wild, the green and the beautiful wherever we are, whether in the remotest hills or in the very heart of our cities.
Let us know your thoughts by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.
Dr Kenny Taylor is a Trustee of the Scottish Wildlife Trust and chairs the North of Scotland Local Group. A writer, broadcaster, naturalist and musician, he has a background in ecology and animal behaviour and long experience of both professional and voluntary work in Scotland's National Parks.