Laura Cunliffe-Hall, Communications Officer for the Environment Network, explores how and why our public spaces are being re-shaped in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and how this can have long-term benefits for public health and our planet.
Across the globe, our towns and cities are being re-shaped as global leaders and urban planners are implementing changes such as wider pavements, traffic restrictions and increased infrastructure specifically tailored towards pedestrians and cyclists. This re-structuring of our spaces is motivated by a variety of factors – the greater need for social distancing due to the impact of COVID-19, relieving pressure on stretched transport networks, wider public health benefits and most significantly from an environmental perspective, improvement of air quality.
Labour have been at the forefront of re-shaping cities in the UK, with Mayors Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham overseeing advancements in both London and Manchester to widen roads, roll out safer cycling routes and pedestrianize areas to reduce air pollution and carbon emissions. London’s new ‘Streetspace’ scheme will transform central parts of the capital into one of the largest car-free zones in the world. In Wales, the First Minister, Labour’s Mark Drakeford, has established funding with local authorities to change the layout of roads and streets and introduce more active travel measures to get people back into town centres, but in a way where they can social distance safely. Re-assessing what our towns and cities look like and if the existing infrastructure in place is fit for purpose has therefore already led and will likely lead to further significant spatial changes. The principle that unites all of these examples of spatial re-structuring is this – safe, generous and accessible common space is fundamental to our public life.
Creating resilient and more sustainable towns and cities will also bring us closer to a future where we are kinder to both each other and our planet. We can also look for inspiration abroad, where cities such as Milan and Amsterdam are repurposing public spaces, transforming mobility infrastructure and re-shaping economic models to put the needs of the planet first. More than ever before, it has become evident that our own health is interlinked to the health of our environment. Airborne particulate matter and other forms of air pollution, worsened by diesel and petrol vehicles, are closely tied to respiratory disease and cardiovascular problems. Some studies have suggested that these medical issues can be exacerbated further by COVID-19. Consequently, it is vital that our transport systems and spaces are re-designed to prevent additional congestion and toxic pollution in future.
Even during a time when the majority of the world has been in some form of lockdown, recently released figures suggest that global carbon dioxide levels are still at a record high. This means that temporary behavioural change is not enough to reduce emissions – we need long-term solutions to make the ways we live, work and travel and the spaces we use to do so more sustainable. This will require increased commitment to investment in city and community resilience to protect against future threats, such as the climate crisis and against public health, from leaders all over the world.
As we look to be spending more time outdoors due to the higher degree of ventilation and reduced likelihood of passing on COVID-19, further investment will also be required in public realm improvements, such as tree-planting and the protection of parks. Doing so will prioritise the green spaces that have been a lifeline to communities during this pandemic. Our leaders need to adapt and climate-proof our public spaces to help enable the ‘green recovery’ plans Ed Miliband has called for to stimulate and action the rescue of the post-COVID-19 economy.
With even the Conservatives now embracing the rhetoric of ‘green recovery’, following calls from businesses, environmental organisations and youth leaders, it is to be hoped that positive progress can continue to be made across the political spectrum to re-shape our spaces for the better. However, in order to clear the path towards the green recovery, more needs to be done and faster to contribute to a climate-safe and healthier future for our communities.
Laura Cunliffe-Hall is Communications Officer for the Young Fabians Environment Network. Laura works for a communications consultancy, specialising in stakeholder engagement and public affairs. She writes in a personal capacity.
Follow her on Twitter @LauraHall1995
The Young Fabians Environment Network are hosting an event on ‘The Future of Food: making what we eat ethical and sustainable’ on Monday 25 May at 7pm with Leonie Cooper AM, Angharad Hopkinson of the Fairtrade Foundation and Lily Chamberlain of Open Cags. Please register on Zoom here: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZwvceGsrTsvHNEByUuOZbrjPYi5QUAYgw4N?fbclid=IwAR0kqSTflcJLiCIuckoVSPNUeiQr3Qu2kJsB4HIiBOh8cqkVi_QajP_KH5k
 The new model introduced to futureproof decisions and policies made by the municipality of Milan is called “Donut Economics.” It is created by British economist Kate Raworth, a senior research associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute: https://www.forbes.com/sites/tinethygesen/2020/05/14/these-cities-are-coming-out-stronger-from-coronavirus/#488347216ba8
 Source, Jonathan Van-Tam, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England: https://inews.co.uk/news/coronavirus-catch-outside-indoorswhy-get-covid-19-explained-2848865