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PARKS, PLANNING, AND THE RESPONSES TO COVID-19

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Since we are all directly experiencing the importance of green space and accessible public parks in this time of lockdown, we asked Dr Ian Mell from the Department of Planning & Environmental Management at the University of Manchester, and author of Lund Humphries publication, Green Infrastructure Planning: Reintegrating Landscape in Urban Planning, to reflect on the role of Green Infrastructure and Urban Planning in a time of social isolation and government restrictions.
Here are his thoughts:  

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Over the last two weeks, since the partial lockdown announced on the 23rd March, there have been a number of reports, blog posts and comments reflecting on how parks, green spaces, and the nature of urban form more generally are influencing responses to the novel coronavirus Covid-19. In many places people are adhering to the ‘stay home, stay safe’ mantra promoted by the UK government.  However, across the UK and internationally there are concerns that a small proportion of people are failing to socially distance. This has prompted some local authorities in England, including Fulham and Hammersmith, to close their parks as a precaution, and it is possible - almost certain in some places - that further closures will happen. Parks around the world are engaged in comparable discussions. Some, including in New York and Vancouver, are using 2-meter markings on footpaths to show people how far apart they should be, whilst others have removed sports equipment and closed public facilities. 

 

The Serpentine Lake, London

 

Within this debate there are different levels of understanding of the simultaneous needs to protect people from exposure to Covid-19 by isolating them, while meeting the human need to draw health and well-being benefits from the landscape, and to install a sense, even if partial, of normality into a very unusual situation. Of course, at the heart of this conversation is health, but running parallel to medical knowledge is a need to appreciate the influence, both positive and negative, that landscape and urban planning have on the current situation.

 

The planning of our cities, their design, their interactivity, and their green or greyness are key factors in how we respond as individuals, and as a society, to a pandemic. Moreover, the ways in which we view urban areas is informed by our homes, demographics such as age and ethnicity, and our normal engagement with ‘outside’. For millennia planners have looked to integrate housing, commercial areas, and recreational spaces into our cities, leading to increased density. This has been illustrated as a potential issue in the current lockdown due to the proximity of vast swaths of society in apartments who lack access to green or public open space. In addition, we can see people in suburban areas benefitting from back gardens, access to larger parks, yet with fewer opportunities to interact with others (from a safe distance). Both situations have limitations, and this is where an appreciation of how planning for green space can be beneficial for health and well-being.

 

Green Infrastructure as a set of diverse landscape elements such as parks, street trees, canals, lakes, and green roofs, can be seen as a critical infrastructure in a period of social isolation. These resources, and others, provide social benefits in terms of health and well-being, recreation, and social interaction – even if just to say hello – as well as addressing air pollution, biodiversity and pollination, and urban flooding issues. In its most common form - public parks - the planning of Green Infrastructure can provide the location where high numbers of people can use a space simultaneously without fear of interaction. However, as we have seen over the past week, this is not always the case with conflicts arising between cyclists, runners, couples and groups of friends using parks. Parks such as the Olympic Park in London (250ha), Heaton Park in Manchester (240-260ha) or Birkenhead Park in Wirral (approx. 50ha), all have sufficient space to accommodate people. Spatial scale was an integral design feature of each park and reflects the links between access, functionality, aesthetics and capacity that are common to new landmark parks, like the Olympic Park, and Victorian parks, across the UK. Unfortunately, we are seeing people criticise others for what they see as clustering or over-use during a health crisis. Such conflicts raise questions regarding the design, scale and use of parks during Covid-19, and ask searching questions of parks and civic officials regarding how best to manage these essential public spaces.

 

Conflicts between users of Green Infrastructure are common. Dog-walkers as the sentinels of parks, feel ownership over them and take umbrage with some users (often runners), for using their spaces. This has been exacerbated during the lockdown as more people are using parks as the civic spaces they were intended to be. Unfortunately, this impacts on the status quo for some people, leading to disagreements. Within the thinking on Green Infrastructure the promotion of multi-functional spaces is key. Places should offer a number of affordances for all members of society allowing them to receive the benefits of green spaces. This means jointly sharing spaces and creating a new narrative for parks, as something and somewhere for all, during the Covid-19 lockdown. The great parks designers, Joseph Paxton and Frederick Law Olmstead, promoted this view noting that Green Infrastructure could act as the lungs of a city: its civic and aesthetic heart, transcending class, race and gender. Whilst planners such as Patrick Geddes and specifically Patrick Abercrombie’s London Plan positioned Green Infrastructure, via the Green Belt, as extensive green spaces for all. Such a standpoint is relevant now maybe more than it has been for generations.

 

Unfortunately, due to the nature of urban form and the lifestyles people live, the ability to plan large swaths of Green Infrastructure or deliver new landmark parks, with the exception of the Olympic Park in London, is often compromised by economics and planning regulation. Whilst Natural England and the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), are proposing to ensure that Green Infrastructure (through Natural Capital Accounting and Biodiversity) receives sufficient consideration in all development, the ability of Local Authorities to deliver multi-functional spaces is compromised by a lack of funding and capacity. It is therefore crucial that we are aware of the limitations of public funding, the barriers to enforcement of planning for Green Infrastructure, and the limitations that economic viability place on development. All of this has led to a cleavage between the civic role of planning for people and place, and the actual delivery of higher quality places.

 

Battersea Park, London

 

We can look to research in Green Infrastructure, Urban Design, Health and Well-Being, and Neighbourhood Planning to find potential solutions to the dislocation between planning as a civic profession and the growing exclusivity of space. Philip Black’s discussion of the Urban Design Process outlines the need to engage with notions of landscape functionality and permeability to design places that people want to, and can, spend time in. Dave Counsell and Rob Stoneman discuss the role nature holds in creating and maintaining sustainable places. Whilst Claire Freeman and Andrea Cook outline how planning can promote better interaction and well-being for children. All of these studies illustrate the value of planning during a time of crisis.

 

Well planned urban areas are walkable, attractive and in-sync with natural processes. Liveable cities are appropriately scaled to offer meaningful interactions between people and locale. Functional cities are those that respect and support ecological services through the management of Green Infrastructure and urban climatic systems. Each of these propositions are now being tested due to social distancing and lockdown rules.

 

In response, we are seeing the benefits of integrating good design and walkability into urban areas, as it allows residents to go outside and exercise without conflict. Unfortunately, these positives are counter balanced by political decision-making that is assessing the health of society against the value of parks and public spaces to society. One way to limit exposure is to limit use of parks. The closure of public parks would stop people using them and potentially keep them at home and safe. There is a practical logic to making people isolate, although the societal damage could be considerable. Closing parks also removes the potential for on-site conflict and the need to police parks. Again, this is logical and efficient in terms of placing resources where they are needed. However, the impact of such closures is considerable.

 

Limiting use would lower the access to spaces for exercise, moderated recreation, quiet contemplation and tranquillity, and engagement with nature. It would potentially exacerbate stress and anxiety and impact on the mood of the nation. It would also make social isolation more prevalent, long lasting and damaging. For many, including myself, going for a walk is important to relieving the stress of trying to function as a family and as an employee whilst working at home. The relief of going outside is considerable and has a lasting impact on mood and is felt across households. Restricting the opportunity to spend time outside, in nature, in sunlight, and away from the four walls of a flat or house, is important, and will become increasingly so as the lockdown continues.

 

As a society we need to think carefully about how we address issues of isolation and public safety. We should all be following the government’s advice on social distancing and isolation to help address the spread of Covid-19 but we also all need to be aware that we are a society. Each person in the UK, and internationally, is dealing with Covid-19 differently. Some people are flourishing, whilst others are struggling. Research within planning provides insights into how Green Infrastructure, urban design, spatial and neighbourhood planning can all be used to maximise the value of the urban landscape by making these landscapes personal and safe. We do, however, also have to take responsibility for our actions as individuals.

 

Parks are not the answer to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, but they are part of a suite of places and resources that offer respite from the ongoing media discussions of isolation and ill health. By looking at historical forms of planning we can see the multiple positive impacts of Green Infrastructure: we can see how it was used to facilitate social betterment; we can identify how well-designed places are actively allowing people to go outside; and we can show how well-planned towns and communities can function in this time of need. We need Green Infrastructure now and we cannot afford to lose green spaces to closures. Planning has taught us that a lack of access to Green Infrastructure leads to poor quality places and ill health. If we all follow the government guidance, then we will not lose our parks and we will continue to benefit from them.

 

Parks won’t save the day, but they will play a significant role in helping us deal with the fallout of lockdown.

 

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Dr Ian Mell 
Department of Planning & Environmental Management, University of Manchester
@Mell_GIPlanning

Ian's book, Green Infrastructure Planning: Reintegrating Landscape in Urban Planning is available now!

 

Works Referenced:

Black, P & Sonbil, TE (2019) The Urban Design Process. Lund Humphries.
Freeman, C & Cook, A. (2019) Children and Planning. Lund Humphries
Counsell, D. & Stoneman, R. (2018) Planning, Sustainability and Nature. Lund Humphries
Mell, I. (2019) Green Infrastructure Planning: Reintegrating Landscape in Urban Planning. Lund Humphries

 

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