Hong Kong: Looking from a Country Park on Hong Kong Island toward Kowloon.

What they are

Urban protected areas are protected areas situated in or at the edge of larger population centers. They can be in any of IUCN’s Protected Area Management Categories. Most of them are administered by governments at national, state or provincial, or local levels; others are managed by NGOs or businesses; and some are collaborative efforts.

These are protected areas in every sense and do not include conventional urban parks with lawns, flowerbeds, and sports fields. For a detailed discussion, see Urban Protected Areas: Profiles and Best Practice Guidelines, a volume in IUCN WCPA’s Best Practice Protected Area Guidelines Series.

How they are distinctive

Urban protected areas are distinctive in several ways. They:

Receive large numbers of visitors, including many who visit frequently, even daily. Many of these visitors lack experience of wilder forms of nature. They tend to be much more diverse ethnically and economically than visitors to more remote protected areas. 

Relate to numerous actors in the urban arena, including government decision-makers, communications media, opinion leaders, and key educational and cultural institutions. 

Are threatened by urban sprawl and intensification of urban development. 

Are disproportionately affected by crime, vandalism, littering, dumping, and light and noise pollution. 

Are subject to such urban edge effects as more frequent and more severe fires, air and water pollution, and introduction of invasive alien species. 

Why they matter

Urban protected areas are important for all the reasons any protected area is important, such as providing ecosystem services, protecting species, and supporting the local economy with income from tourism. However, they have a critical role that sets them apart from other protected areas. They provide opportunities for large numbers of urban people to experience nature, including many people who may not be able to visit more remote protected areas. This is important for two reasons:

Regular contact with nature is good for people. Aside from the benefits of outdoor exercise, there is growing scientific evidence to support the idea that spending time in nature improves physical and mental health. 

Urban people are critical for nature conservation nationally and globally. More than half of humanity lives in urban areas and this proportion is growing dramatically. Wealth is concentrated in cities, as are communications media. Worldwide, there is a general trend toward more democratic political systems in which voters hold ultimate power. Conservation depends on support from urban voters, urban donors, and urban communicators. Yet urban people tend to have less and less contact with nature. People will value nature only if they care about nature where they live. 

Ten examples of urban protected areas

These examples of urban protected areas represent different world regions, socioeconomic situations, natural environments, sizes, and styles of management:

Cape Town, South Africa (metropolitan population 3.9 million): Table Mountain National Park (IUCN Category II, 25,000 hectares of land; 100,000 ha of the Atlantic Ocean). Includes iconic Table Mountain, the Cape of Good Hope, and unparalleled floral diversity. Managed by South African National Parks. Part of a natural World Heritage site.

Hong Kong (7 million): Hong Kong Country Parks (Category V, 44,000 ha of land; 1,430 ha of marine
parks). Mountainous parks cover 40 percent of Hong Kong’s otherwise intensively developed territory. Administered by the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China.

Kingston, Jamaica (580,000): Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park (Category II, 580,000 ha). Protects wet tropical forests that are habitat for diverse wildlife and a key source of water for cities and agriculture. Managed by an NGO, the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust, under contract with the national government.

London, United Kingdom (8.1 million): London Wetland Centre (Category IV, 42 ha). A “re-creation” of wetlands along the River Thames. Created and managed by an NGO, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.

Los Angeles, California, USA (18 million): Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (Category V, 62,300 ha). Extends from the city’s heart to the Pacific Ocean; top-predator mountain lions are resident. A cooperative effort of the United States National Park Service and two California state protected area agencies.

Marseille, France (1.5 million): Calanques National Park (Category II, 8,500 ha of land and 43,500 ha of the Mediterranean Sea, plus buffer zones). Rocky inlets, headlands, and islands heavily influenced by human activity over millennia. Managed by an administrative council composed of representatives of national and regional agencies and local governments, various interest groups, residents of the park, and park staff.

Nairobi, Kenya (3 million): Nairobi National Park (Category II, 11,700 ha). The protected corner of a large savanna ecosystem; an impressive array of wildlife species includes the black rhinoceros (IUCN Critically Endangered), lion, leopard, buffalo, and hippopotamus. Managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (12.8 million): Tijuca National Park (Category II, 4,000 ha). Mountains covered by almost entirely restored tropical rainforest. Part of a cultural World Heritage site. Managed jointly by the municipality and the national protected area agency, the Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Bioversidade.   

Seoul, Republic of Korea (25 million): Bukhansan National Park (Category V. 8,000 ha). Granite mountain slopes and wooded valleys with over 10 million visits a year. Managed by the Korea National Park Service.

Sydney, Australia (4.7 million): Royal National Park (Category II, 16,000 ha). Heathland, woodland, forest, and wetland; a heavily visited site bordered by the Pacific Ocean, a bay, suburbs, and a transportation corridor. Managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the State of New South Wales.

Challenges and opportunities especially relevant to urban protected areas

These are pertinent to any protected area, but especially relevant to protected areas in or adjoining large population centers:

Providing access for all; reaching out to diverse ethnic groups and the underprivileged. This includes accommodating disabled people, choosing words and symbols for compliance signs carefully, and using a range of languages in signs and publications where appropriate. It also includes encouraging direct public transportation, supplying transportation if necessary, providing well-mapped and clearly marked trails, and making bicycle routes and rentals available where possible. 

Engendering a local sense of ownership. To promote appreciation of their protected area among local residents, managers should draw on writers, artists, and other creative people and their works and ideas that relate to it. They should promote appreciation of their area’s cultural, as well as natural assets. Making facilities available for events of governmental agencies, NGOs, and businesses helps build good relations with these organizations.

Demonstrating, facilitating, and promoting good environmental behavior. Urban protected areas offer opportunities to reach large numbers of people with information about the causes and consequences of climate change and demonstrations of energy efficiency; energy and water conservation; and reduction, reuse, and recycling of materials.

Demonstrating, facilitating, and promoting health benefits of contact with nature and good eating habits. Urban protected areas have an important role here. Spending time in nature improves physical and mental health. And rather than selling conventional fast-food items, restaurants and cafés in these protected areas can set an example by making available nutritious, local, and sustainable fresh food to visitors.

Preventing littering. Littering is a perennial problem in many urban protected areas, with their large numbers of visitors, many of whom regard these places as extensions of the built environment. Managers should draw on the results of local research on littering behavior. However, certain measures apply everywhere: cleaning up litter frequently and consistently, providing plenty of containers for trash and cigarette butts, and informing visitors of the importance of and reasons for not littering.

Reducing human-wildlife interaction and conflict. Although conflict between people and wildlife can occur almost anywhere, dense human populations near urban protected areas increase the likelihood of such encounters. Predators are of particular concern. Managers should help people protect themselves from predators and seek to maintain a balance between predators and their wild prey. Public education has a key role. Keeping habitat as natural as possible helps control emerging zoonotic diseases, that is, diseases transmitted between other animals and humans.  

Controlling invasive species. The main pathways by which invasive alien species invade new territory are urban: seaports, river ports, airports, rail and truck yards, plant nurseries, and gardens. Urban protected areas can be both facilitators and victims of such traffic. Managers should survey their lands and waters regularly to detect new invasions; and participate in local and national partnerships for prevention, early detection, eradication, and control.

Promoting connections to other natural areas. Managers should cooperate with other public agencies and NGOs to prevent their areas from becoming green islands, including by containing or guiding urban sprawl, maintaining and creating corridors to other natural areas and rural lands, and creating and maintaining buffer zones. Trails linking urban natural areas are physical and psychological connectors to the natural environment.

Helping infuse nature into the built environment. Managers of urban protected areas and their allies should participate in region-wide nature conservation coalitions; projects to develop comprehensive local biodiversity strategies; and efforts to protect, restore, and infuse natural elements in the built environment.

Controlling encroachment. Although illegal building in protected areas is usually associated with the poor, offenders in urban protected areas can also be wealthy and politically well-connected. Managers should prevent and control all encroachment by keeping vigilant, enforcing the law, seeking help from local authorities, and enlisting the cooperation of local people.

Reducing impacts of noise and artificial nighttime light. Noise, defined as unwanted sound, and artificial nighttime light can be problems in any protected areas, but those in urban settings are especially vulnerable. Humans and wildlife are both stressed by noise from visitors, road and rail traffic, aircraft, and other sources. Artificial nighttime light interferes with organism and ecosystem function, impedes visitors’ enjoyment of the nighttime sky, as well as astronomy, and can intrude on appreciation of cultural heritage sites in their authentic state. Some urban protected areas are making progress toward protecting natural soundscapes and the nighttime sky by developing indicators and standards, educating visitors, enforcing regulations, and working with local authorities and businesses in adjoining communities.

Cooperating with institutions that have complementary missions. Educating young people about nature through visits of school and youth groups is a core mission of almost all urban protected areas. Another set of connections is less obvious. Typically there are several kinds of museums and similar institutions in metropolitan areas aimed at educating and sensitizing people to the natural world, but these institutions rarely work together. Managers of urban protected areas should encourage natural history museums, science centers, zoos, aquariums, and botanic gardens to provide information and exhibits about nature and conservation challenges in their regions and cooperate toward that purpose. This can start with cross-promotion. For example, a museum can provide visitors with information about natural places to visit nearby, and exhibits in protected areas can direct visitors to museums.

Other problems especially relevant to urban protected areas include fire, crime, vandalism, flooding, and air and water pollution. Other opportunities include training urban teachers, taking advantage of highly motivated and well-educated urban volunteers, and cooperating with urban universities. These are all discussed with examples in the Urban Protected Areas volume.

Understanding the differences between urban and more remote protected areas

In systems of protected areas, urban ones are almost always a small minority. The organizational cultures of such systems tend to be based on more remote protected areas. Their staff members often come to urban assignments from posts in non-urban protected areas. Those with experience in managing urban protected areas should share their experience with their non-urban colleagues. This can be done at system training sessions, on field trips, and through staff exchanges.

Ted Trzyna for the IUCN WCPA Urban Specialist Group
January 2014

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Mumbai, India: Aerial photo showing Sanjay Gandhi National Park (green area).

Urban protected areas in 2,000 words