Trees are the oldest living Londoners. They are also a vital part of our city — indeed, according to one United Nations definition, the capital already counts as a forest. Climb Parliament Hill, New Addington Hills, Honor Oak Park or any other of London’s great viewpoints in the summer and you can see why. There are nearly as many trees as people in London and together they cover 21 per cent of its area. Compare that to the sparseness of much of the countryside.
The oldest tree in London, the Totteridge Yew, has lived through 2,000 summers. This incredible tree lives in a churchyard in Barnet and was a sapling when the Romans founded our city. Everything that has ever happened in London has happened in its lifetime.
“Many plane trees in London are more than a century old and have perhaps centuries to go,” writes Paul Wood, the author of London’s Street Trees: A Field Guide to the Urban Forest. “They are older than most of the city’s buildings and will outlive many more.”
But the pressure on our trees is growing. Anyone who watched Sir David Attenborough on the BBC’s Climate Change — The Facts would surely have felt a cold chill go down their spine when he said: “It may sound frightening but the scientific evidence is that if we’ve not taken dramatic action within the next decade we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies.”
That irreversible damage to the natural world is already happening, and here in the UK we already live in one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries — coming 189th out of 218, according to our own State of Nature report published in 2016.
That is one reason we need to plant more trees, to replace those we are losing and to leave a better city for the future. Planting and protecting trees is one of the best ways to lock up carbon, clean our air and provide habitats for wildlife. It makes good financial sense, too. According to Natural England, for every £1 spent on trees, the UK saves £7 in healthcare, energy and environmental costs.
Michael Gove , the Environment Secretary, seems to understand this. This week he launched an Urban Tree Challenge Fund that includes £10 million in grants for 130,000 trees to be planted across towns and cities in England.
This good news should be celebrated, especially as trees that are closer to people will provide more benefits to people. But £10 million is not very much in the grand scheme of things and will not buy what we need. We need more investment — £1 billion for city regions perhaps, and more protection for mature trees, threatened by development, climate change and disease.
That’s why we must be much more ambitious. Currently only about 13 per cent of the United Kingdom is woodland. We could double that. This month the Government’s own Committee on Climate Change called for us to plant three billion trees, to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
This week the organisation Rewilding Britain responded to that challenge, calling for a quarter of the UK’s land to be restored to nature. These are not fantasies. They are doable and necessary ambitions.
What does this mean for London? We need to get away from the idea that nature is for the countryside and not for cities such as ours. I have been involved in a campaign to declare London a National Park City and it has strong public support.
"We need to get away from the idea that nature is for the countryside and not for cities"
A poll by YouGov we carried out found that nine in 10 Londoners think it is important that we have more trees in London. We should have a pact to always have more trees than people in London. It’s possibly the most civilised thing we could do.
We are fortunate to have good news to tell. Great groups and organisations across the capital that are finding spaces and creating opportunities to grow more trees. The Mayor of London has Community Tree Planting Grants and a target of increasing London’s tree canopy by 10 per cent too. But we cannot depend on others to achieve such ambitious aims.
Most of London’s trees are in private spaces, not parks, and many of the best places for growing new trees are in private spaces too. We have 3.8 million gardens in London that cover a quarter of the city. Too many of them are increasingly grey, poisoned, plastic and devoid of life. But things don’t have to be like this.
In the small back garden of my previous Ealing terraced house we had a gorgeous and bountiful plum tree. Many of the back gardens across the neighbourhood have fruit trees and each year my wife made jam for our friends and neighbours.
Before the houses were built the land was used as an orchard by a neighbouring estate that was swallowed up in the capital’s expansion. The Victorian builders protected many of the fruit trees and those are the ones that survive to this day. It is beautiful to think the orchard is still alive, even if it is spread across many back gardens.
Inspired by London being declared the world’s first National Park City, we should start planting. What if we organised ourselves garden by garden, street by street, business by business and planted a million more trees across our city? That would be an incredible act of generosity, care and hope for ourselves and future generations.
- Dan Raven-Ellison is a guerrilla geographer and explorer