Do we still need National Parks?

Do we still need National Parks?

In the wake of the creation of the Centre for National Parks and Protected Areas (CNPPA) at the university's Ambleside campus, Ian Convery, Professor of Environment and Society, discusses the importance of National Parks. 

The university has invested heavily in the Ambleside site over recent years and we’re justifiably proud of our beautiful campus in the heart of the Lake District. The next stage of development sees the launch of the , which aims to become ‘an international centre of excellence for the integrated study of national park and protected area management’.

Since the first English national park in 1951 (the Peak District, in case you were wondering), they have grown to become cherished landscapes, celebrated for nature and culture and very much bound up in our national identity; they are true ‘national treasures’.

So far so good, but as someone asked me the other day, if we didn’t already have national parks, would we seek to establish them now?

The short answer is yes, but this is a surprisingly tricky question to answer. It is perhaps useful to consider the original purposes of our national parks as set out in the 1949 National Parks & Access to the Countryside Act, which were to protect nature and offer opportunities areas for public enjoyment and recreation. In the mid-1990s, ‘fostering the economic and social well-being of local communities’ was added to this list.

From the perspective of protecting nature, science has moved on considerably since the 1950s, and the traditional national parks approach of creating ‘protected islands’ is somewhat at odds with our contemporary understanding of natural systems, where connectivity and networks are seen as important components of protected landscapes.

In 2015 the Lake District National Park received over 17 million visitors, so the recreation box has been well and truly ticked. Indeed, some might argue that the ‘honeypots’ of Cumbria are creaking at the seams with visitors and there is the risk that the visitor experience is diminished by congested roads, busy trails and packed tea rooms. Globally, the challenges are arguably even greater, with climate change, population growth and excessive resource use amongst the many issues facing national parks and protected areas.

This sounds like I am painting a negative picture, yet I believe that we need our national parks more than ever. For starters, every week seems to provide yet more evidence on the health benefits of spending time in nature, and it is overwhelming clear that green spaces have a vital role to play in better public health. Our national parks provide a great opportunity for outdoor recreation and exercise, and unlike most national parks around the world, entry is free. National parks offer enormous benefit to the physical and mental health of local communities and visitors alike.

There is also an increasing national interest in wild spaces, and whilst our national parks are undoubtedly cultural landscapes, they could also become wilder landscapes. I realise that this is a controversial area and I’m certainly not advocating wolves on the fells, but planting a few more trees here and there would bring benefits for biodiversity, carbon management, and would also provide a flood barrier as we move towards a warmer, more uncertain climate.

It is, however, the third purpose of national parks – to foster the economic and social well-being of local communities – that is currently receiving much attention, and in the recent DEFRA Policy paper - National parks: 8-point plan for England (2016 to 2020) – the government outlines plans to increase significantly the link between England’s National Parks and business. This includes plans to promote food tourism, with food as a core part of the tourism offer, and ‘sustainably’ increase visitor numbers from the current 90 million visitors per year to 100 million visitors, with an estimated £440 million extra tourism revenue for National Parks and the surrounding areas. The plan also highlights the role National Parks could play in delivering rural apprenticeships, as part of the government target to deliver three million apprenticeships by 2020. Globally, there are also an increasing number of successful private partnership case studies to draw on to help shape policy, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the oldest and largest global conservation body, has recently highlighted the important role businesses can play in meeting the global vision and targets for biodiversity.

The DEFRA 8-point plan points towards a much closer relationship between national parks and local businesses, and whilst there is little detail as yet in terms of what this might mean in practice, there are likely to be new opportunities for local businesses to engage with, and benefit from, national parks.

The creation of CNPPA means that the university is well positioned to work with our partners in national parks and local business to respond to both the opportunities and challenges facing nation parks in the 21st Century.

I for one remain convinced that future generations will continue to visit, support, and love our national parks as much as we do now.

If you'd like to find out more about some of the work going on at the university regarding social, environmental and economic sustainability, visit the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability pages.