National parks should be inclusive; that does not mean destruction

A view from near the summit of a mountain down a valley to a small lake. At the bottom of the valley is a small area of green fields; a small stream runs down the valley to the lake.
Wast Water, from Great Gable, in the English Lake District.

Sky News today reported that the chief executive of the Lake District National Park Authority had claimed that the park was geared too much towards the needs of older, able-bodied, white tourists and was not inclusive enough of disabled people and ethnic minorities. This has obviously led to the usual outcry from ‘conservationists’, Nimbys and reactionaries who have accused him of seeking to dumb down the park, among them the deputy mayor of Keswick (an important service town in the northern part of the park) who has condemned the construction of a tarmac path near Keswick and said that if people do not like the environment as it is, muddy paths and all, they should go elsewhere. The article quotes a report (PDF) by the government’s rural affairs department DEFRA which says that the National Parks are in danger of becoming “an exclusive, mainly white, mainly middle‑class club, with rules only members understand and much too little done to encourage first time visitors”.

There are 12 National Parks in the UK (two in Scotland, three in Wales and the rest in England) and all are large rural areas of particular natural beauty or geological spectacle. They are not parks in the sense that an urban municipal park is, but are working landscapes where tourism is encouraged, including by facilitating access to uncultivated land, and unsympathetic development discouraged or banned altogether. Until quite recently all of the English parks were in the north or south-west; three were added in the south and East Anglia this century (the South Downs, New Forest and Broads). There are other levels of protection for nature and landscapes such as the Green Belt system, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) but the national parks are the best known and probably best funded system and the most geared towards the needs of visitors. They originated after the Second World War and were intended to ensure that there were areas where city dwellers could escape to unspoiled, unpolluted areas, enjoy places of natural beauty and benefit from clean air; their establishment was the result of a popular movement which included protests against people being shut out of uncultivated land by landowners who were using them as grouse moors and the like, one of which was celebrated in the song The Manchester Rambler by Ewan MacColl.

In the comments to the Sky News piece and the tweets in response to it, people have reacted with a mean-spirited parody of what the chief executive was saying, with one reply suggesting that a dual carriageway be built up Scafell Pike and a MacDonald’s be built at the summit, and numerous other suggestions that hills be levelled because they’re ‘exclusionary’ to disabled people. While the majority of people can cope with a muddy path, a paved path away from the road allows a wheelchair user or other disabled person to enjoy the landscape as short of carrying them on a stretcher, there is no way many disabled people could enjoy walking in the hills when the paths are steep, muddy and punctuated by walls and fences that have to be crossed by stiles. Climbing hills and abseiling down cliff faces are all very well if you can, but if you are not physically able to, you should not be shut out of the country’s premier outdoor holiday destinations. When the national parks were established, many disabled and long-term sick people were still living in institutions which were in the country for a reason — because clean air was healthier and might aid their recovery or prevent deterioration. Of course, you didn’t get to appreciate the landscape much if you were shut behind walls, but the principle was understood when these places were first built. (The “£8m tarmac trail” that is the focus of the deputy mayor’s complaint is actually along an old railway line, like many long-distance walks and cycle routes the country over, and the project is to restore it after sections of it were destroyed by floods in a major storm in 2015.)

Cities are nowadays less polluted than they used to be, although traffic fumes have eroded some of the benefits brought by cleaner fuels and reduced “smoke stack” manufacturing, but access to nature and natural beauty is still good for the spirit and access to rugged landscapes where one can climb, abseil and do other activities that build up physical strength and survival skills is good for one’s general health. I spent many holidays as a child and much time as a student exploring and appreciating some of Britain’s national parks — the Lake District and Snowdonia in particular — and I agree that it is important that everyone have a way of enjoying it, not just the physically most able, those with a car and the money to run it, and those who fit into a mostly white, provincial English county. They are called national parks for a reason; they are supported by all of us and we all have a right to enjoy them however we can.

Image source: Doug Sim, via Wikimedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 4.0 licence.

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