The post-lockdown city is a strange place. Streets are quiet, shops are empty, and office workers are, mostly, still safely ensconced at home. But while Covid-19 has wrought chaos, it’s also prompted long-overdue questions about the value of public space and the importance of its design. This isn’t a new conversation, but coronavirus has given city councils the opportunity to make change. Milan has announced that it’s rethinking 22 miles of road to make more space for pedestrians and cyclists, and Bogotá is opening 47 extra miles of bike lanes. London has introduced large car-free areas, and other cities are also planning to widen pavements to make streets more pedestrian-friendly.
The pandemic has also emphasised the enormous benefits of green space, which became more essential than ever during lockdown. For Sue Morgan, landscape architect and director of architecture and the built environment at the Design Council, it’s been a strangely bittersweet time. “The penny has dropped about just how important good public space, and access to green space, is for everybody,” she tells CR. “But it has also highlighted the inequalities. Nearly three million people in this country don’t have access to green space within ten minutes’ walking distance. People don’t have access to gardens or balconies. The pandemic has brought this into very sharp focus and shows why the spaces you live in are incredibly important. They need to be big enough to live in, and they need to be designed so they’re healthy.”
If you look at Victoria Park or Birkbeck Park in Liverpool, the whole point of setting them up was about public health – keeping people out of pubs and away from cheap gin
According to Morgan, the link between green space and wellbeing is not a new one. Social reformer Octavia Hill, who set up the National Trust, understood the importance of healthy housing and green space in the mid-1800s. She envisioned social housing designed to give people access to community buildings, as well as green space to grow vegetables and enjoy the open air. “If you look at Victoria Park or Birkbeck Park in Liverpool, the whole point of setting them up was about public health – keeping people out of pubs and away from cheap gin in the Victorian era,” explains Morgan. “But it was also about fresh air and cholera. What we have now is a perfect storm of the pandemic, which is exacerbated by people’s lack of resilience in terms of health, the places where we live, and also the other pandemic – non-communicable diseases such as asthma, depression and loneliness – which people are beginning to talk about.”