What defines a National Park City – Part 3



Venice – A National Urban Marine Park?  Photo – Caitlin McCarthy 2016

In my first two blogs What defines a National Park City – Part 2, I started to explore:

  • the idea of the meaning of National Parks and it was interesting to understand that the modern definition of a National Park is different from the original intent,
  • the history and what might be National Urban Parks, and
  • What defines a city space – the context of the “Urban National Park”.

In this blog I will explore what constitutes the attributes that defines a National Park (in a modern sense) and are there other relevant approaches and how this might relate to “National Urban Parks”.

The categorisation process is really a post WWII concept that has emerged through bodies such as UNESCO, UN and IUCN.

The IUCN & Categories

It was in 1969 when the IUCN defined a system that categorised what are protected areas (or areas to protect conservation values).

A Protected Area can be defined as:

Generally, protected areas are understood to be those in which human occupation or at least the exploitation of resources is limited. The definition that has been widely accepted across regional and global frameworks has been provided by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in its categorisation guidelines for protected areas. The definition is as follows:

“A clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values

Source:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protected_area

The IUCN have defined 6 Categories of Protected Areas and National Parks Category is defined as:

Category II: National Park

Large natural or near natural areas set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes, along with the complement of species and ecosystems characteristic of the area, which also provide a foundation for environmentally and culturally compatible spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities.

With a Primary Objective:

To protect natural biodiversity along with its underlying ecological structure and supporting environmental processes, and to promote education and recreation.

Source:  http://www.iucn.org/theme/protected-areas/about/protected-area-categories/category-ii-national-park

But what are the characteristics that define this classification system:

Other objectives

To manage the area in order to perpetuate, in as natural a state as possible, representative examples of physiographic regions, biotic communities, genetic resources and unimpaired natural processes;

To maintain viable and ecologically functional populations and assemblages of native species at densities sufficient to conserve ecosystem integrity and resilience in the long term;

To contribute in particular to conservation of wide-ranging species, regional ecological processes and migration routes;

To manage visitor use for inspirational, educational, cultural and recreational purposes at a level which will not cause significant biological or ecological degradation to the natural resources;

To take into account the needs of indigenous people and local communities, including subsistence resource use, in so far as these will not adversely affect the primary management objective;

To contribute to local economies through tourism.

Distinguishing features

Category II areas are typically large and conserve a functioning “ecosystem”, although to be able to achieve this, the protected area may need to be complemented by sympathetic management in surrounding areas.

The area should contain representative examples of major natural regions, and biological and environmental features or scenery, where native plant and animal species, habitats and geodiversity sites are of special spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational or tourist significance.

The area should be of sufficient size and ecological quality so as to maintain ecological functions and processes that will allow the native species and communities to persist for the long term with minimal management intervention.

The composition, structure and function of biodiversity should be to a great degree in a “natural” state or have the potential to be restored to such a state, with relatively low risk of successful invasions by non-native species.

Source:  http://www.iucn.org/theme/protected-areas/about/protected-area-categories/category-ii-national-park

Does our concept of a National Park need to evolve?

At this stage it is difficult to quantify the parameters that would make a parcel of land unique to be considered as a National Park.

What is a “large tract” of land?

Who determines “representative examples”? or

What is “recreational or tourism significance”?

Interesting questions, so who judges what will be a National Park?

  • The people behind “Americas greatest idea”?
  • The IUCN?
  • The UN?
  • Sovereign nations?
  • The community?

The IUCN has produced a lengthy guide on how to apply the Protected Area Management Categories (143 pages).

Source:   https://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/iucn_assignment_1.pdf

So returning to “America’s best idea” – the creation of Yosemite National Park – it certainly is a large tract of land that is in a natural state and represents unique biophysical features and is also of international significance as a tourism destination.  However this designation as a National Park occurred well before a classification system was agreed upon, some 105 years earlier.

In fact most countries designate parks as “National Parks” without any international assessment as would occur with say a “World Heritage” designation.  This doesn’t mean that parks don’t meet the agreed framework but there are many examples where this doesn’t occur and maybe the system should evolve.  The National Urban Parks concept does beg this question – who will judge if a City should be a “National Urban Park”.  However when the discussion does start to occur, it usually starts at the “1969 Protected Area” lens rather than a broader holistic concept.  Is the “1969 Protected Area” lens out of date? And has our thinking evolved?

If you start with the “1969 Protected Area” lens, very few parks in cities could be considered as Category II and that is without defining what being in a city means (see: So what is a City?) .  And no Cities would as the whole landscape (public and private) be considered as a “National (Urban) Park”.  And I stand to be corrected.

Other Concepts for defining a National Urban Park

So are there other concepts that maybe more relevant or should be incorporated to define a “National Urban Park”:


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. This is embodied in an international treaty called the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage , adopted by UNESCO in 1972.

Source: http://whc.unesco.org/en/about/

The World Heritage system is a heavily defined process against clear criteria

To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.

Source: http://whc.unesco.org/en/criteria/


ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites)

This non-government organisation “works for the conservation and protection of cultural heritage places”

Source:   http://www.icomos.org/en/

ICOMOS has developed a range of Charters and Declarations since 1964 including two that could help define the park topology in terms of city landscape:

 Charter for the Conservation of Historic Towns and Urban Areas (The Washington Charter) – 1987

Source:   http://www.international.icomos.org/charters/towns_e.pdf

Historic Gardens (The Florence Charter) – 1981

Source:   http://www.international.icomos.org/charters/gardens_e.pdf

And of course there are a range of UN related program that are driving new ideas and thoughts that may be applicable in defining a “National Park City” such as:

MAB – Biosphere

Launched in 1971, UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB) is an Intergovernmental Scientific Programme that aims to establish a scientific basis for the improvement of relationships between people and their environments.

Source:   http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/ecological-sciences/man-and-biosphere-programme/

Could a “National Park City” define itself in terms of the three functions of BioSpheres?:

  • Conservation – contribute to the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic variation
  • Development – foster economic and human development which is socio-culturally and ecologically sustainable
  • Logistic support – support for demonstration projects, environmental education and training, research and monitoring related to local, regional, national and global issues of conservation and sustainable development


UN-Habitat is the United Nations programme working towards a better urban future. Its mission is to promote socially and environmentally sustainable human settlements development and the achievement of adequate shelter for all.

 Source:   http://unhabitat.org/

Where next

So in this blog I have explored what constitutes the attributes that defines a National Park (in a modern sense) and the other relevant approaches and how this might relate to “National Urban Parks”.  However before we construct a classification system or bolted it onto another system with another purpose, it is worthwhile exploring in my next blog what might well be “UK’s Best Idea” for parks.


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