Will Covid-19 change the value of public space?
Blog by Siobhan Vernon, Director, Austin-Smith:Lord
April is World Landscape Architecture Month, and this would often coincide with spending more time outdoors, enjoying our public space, as spring emerges. However, this annual event for celebrating all things landscape may now be better spent reflecting on our current situation.
During this period, when the UK is in “lockdown” to slow the spread of the Coronavirus, most of us are missing our lost freedom to spend as much time as we please outdoors in public space.
When we reach the other side of this crisis will we view public space in a different light? And therefore, will there be significant changes in our approach to public space design and how we inhabit it. This wouldn’t be the first time there has been a design response to epidemics throughout history. It is widely documented that cholera, smallpox, typhoid and tuberculosis outbreaks instigated design responses to assist in resolving and preventing reoccurrences. Measures included reconfiguration of city infrastructure, the introduction of sanitation, housing reform and planned green, open space.
At the moment space (and hand washing) are the primary defence against Covid-19 due to no known cure or current vaccine. Therefore, space is the weapon to address this pandemic. Spatial design may address possible future pandemics to come.
A normal daily routine for many of us, involves waiting in large groups in public transport hubs to start our commute on crowded public transport. We may arrive at a densely populated City or Town to a place of work. Will we simply revert to this way of life, after lockdown? Or do we need to consider what anti-pandemic spaces would look like, coupled with anti-pandemic behaviour to alleviate crowding together?
Recent and sudden changes in behaviour include the move to remote working from each other, which has involved expanding our technological infrastructure. Perhaps a direct comparison to the infrastructure of sanitation after previous epidemics. Furthermore, sales of bicycles in the UK have risen by 15%, according to a BBC report, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK. This is presumably due to the desire to avoid public transport and maintain independent travel. Cities are fantastic and many enjoy the city experience however the reaction to Covid-19 may produce a behaviour change response. New daily routines may evolve to avoid the crowded commute. Staggered working days may be the norm plus an increased use of walking and cycling routes. More walking and cycling would be a positive change on many fronts. This needs support with the implementation of the correct infrastructure such as attractive walking routes and generous, bike lanes. This would facilitate distancing in our commute and general travel.
Recent news reports of large numbers of people gathering and congregating in local parks and green space, despite being asked to maintain social distancing, perhaps points to the fact we love it and need more of it. It may also suggest that we need green space better interspersed into our local communities as well.
Access to public space is of paramount importance in our current state of isolation and social distancing. It is likely to be considered of greater value, as a facilitator for cathartic activity, and our reaction to the enforced indoor lifestyle. Public open space accommodates movement, exercise, access to fresh air, bird song, wildlife and green infrastructure. All of these things are important for our immune system and our mental health. In the absence of an antibody or a vaccine for Covid-19, this is very valuable indeed.