Urban planning evolved as a means to improve public health during the industrial revolution, when working conditions became dramatically less healthy and pollution became the norm. The initial lockdown easing measures appear to mitigate against a complete economic crash, but they are also heavily weighted in favour of improving public health. Unlimited outdoor activity, picnics, sunbathing and meeting a few friends are not about boosting the economy but are a huge gasp of fresh air for anyone struggling to feel their best in our new closed and sedentary lifestyle.
However, we have also seen parks closed. The need to close public parks when there isn’t enough room for the numbers of people who want to use them, is surely a sign that we do not have nearly enough public open space? Especially not for those who need it most, those who live in built up areas with little or no outside space of their own. This includes many of our key workers and those on low incomes. People whose social contribution has really been to the fore through these last few months, as we have said previously outside space is not a luxury*.
Urban open space is a public asset and should be available to all, as we already know it is necessary for public health.
The lockdown has enabled us to experience slow, quiet, clean cities, will it prove to be a ‘once you pop you just can’t stop’ experience? People have noticed how much nicer it is to walk and cycle in a city with less traffic, how birds can be heard without the traffic drowning out the dawn chorus, how clean the air smells and tastes without pollution. Images of animals exploring urban spaces have been widely shared and, as the pace of life has slowed down, there has been more time to observe the natural world and appreciate the flora and fauna we are glad to live alongside.
What does this mean for city planning? Will new standards for parks and open space become national policy as a result of the virus? Will measures that support and enhance biodiversity, that help to mitigate against climate change, be made obligatory in new planning policy? In Bristol, the council has declared not just a climate emergency but an ecological one too. It’s time to enforce the changes that are necessary and stop seeing them as abstract theory – they affect us all. Space standards for housing are already too small in the UK, compared with the EU, and in many boroughs external space requirements are not specified at all. We know that multi-functional, connected and layered, urban green space is a key requirement for everyone. Clear guidance for the ratio of outside space to the built environment should be set out in national planning policy now.
*See our post 'Outside space is not a luxury'