Time out of your new daily schedule may involve a valuable hour to exercise and escape the view from within your house or flat. The COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed our appreciation of a number of things, like key workers. I hope it has also removed the term “unskilled” from the description of care workers, van drivers and the many occupations that have been proven to keep society functioning.
Our possible assumptions prior to the COVID-19 situation may have included: that all food is available all the time; social interaction isn’t a daily essential; it is difficult to make time or find resources for the more vulnerable sectors of the community and finally, possibly the most contentious assumption: responses to the effects of climate change need to be put into context with the other demands made of us. Assumptions out of the way, what have we valued or enjoyed over the last few weeks?
For many of us who are applying social distancing measures, self-isolating, working and studying from home, or have been forced from our normal streams of income because of COVID-19 and are now without employment… have you used your local green space? Have you enjoyed being able to walk, run or cycle around or through one of the essential public green spaces near you?
Unlike London, where borough councils have locked some of their parks and prevented access, here in Peterborough the green spaces have largely remained accessible for residents. Many urban green spaces are normally used to link journeys and are often travelled through without much thought to what they provide for us! In our built-up urban settings, the density of residents and the level of development can reduce or limit the amount we can connect with nature and so our green spaces provide us with a valuable opportunity to do so.
As we self-isolate and reduce our travel to essential journeys, or take part in local social distancing exercise, it has become really obvious how needed our green spaces are. Recently the density of people trying to use the parks or green spaces in a way that complies with the social distancing safety protocols has been difficult. This is in some part due to how many people are concentrated around them.
With greater demand, use and an increase in appreciation and value, urban green spaces are for many of us the primary source of enjoying fresh air, sunlight, plants, trees, and the cheering of bird songs. They, hopefully, also offer a little of that nature connection I mentioned earlier.
We have been asked to self-isolate, yet the scientific community and medical advisers are aware of the benefits of going outdoors and have robustly protected the right for us to at least spend an hour outside in a suitable outdoor space. Much public debate has centred around balancing public safety with access to the well-being and health benefits of our green spaces. Getting outside has many benefits. It makes us feel better, it releases the stresses of everyday living. The fresh, clean air from reduced vehicle transport relaxes us and the sunlight resets our body clocks, improving our sleep patterns. It keeps us healthier for longer: “There is good evidence that being outside is essential for our physical and mental health.” (https://dementia.stir.ac.uk/design/virtual-environments/importance-design/importance-getting-outside)
Peterborough is very much a green city with more outdoor spaces than many others. Working with our green spaces and the many sectors of the community; PECT has undertaken countless projects over the last 25 years delivering and building on the green infrastructure here.
Green spaces contribute to much more than an open space. They provide crucial habitats for declining species, cleaner air and improve urban life by contributing to the character of the place. Green spaces provide a place for meeting friends, families and neighbours, fun activities, and recreation. Safe, clean open areas increase the potential for tourism and desirability for the housing stock. A more desirable city creates a more buoyant economy, which provides greater employment opportunities.
Evidence demonstrates that our green spaces are important to us and that, prior to COVID-19, we were using our green spaces an increasing amount: “UK urban green spaces saw an estimated 1.46 billion visits in 2015-2016, compared with 1.16 billion visits in 2009-2010” (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/visits-to-parks-on-the-rise-as-city-dwellers-head-outdoors). This is an increase in use of 25%. And good news for the more sustainability aware; there has been a reduction in vehicle use to get to our green spaces!
With the importance of green spaces, it is a surprise that there is “no statutory mandate to provide parks and green spaces, these spaces are deemed a discretionary service or an amenity – something that’s nice to have, but not essential” (https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lselondon/valuing-londons-urban-green-space-in-a-time-of-crisis-and-in-everyday-life/). Local authorities are the primary providers of public green spaces, who continue to provide most of the management and maintenance of these areas. Austerity has affected all aspects of local authority budgets and without adequate resources, they may struggle to continue to do this.
Green spaces are not necessarily protected and in a 2018 Ordinance survey blog there was a reported 17,000 playing fields in England, compared with 21,000 sites reported by the NPFA in 2005. The NPFA is now the Fields in Trust, who work to protect green spaces. The reduction in playing fields means we are losing over 300 per year and although there is no intended reduction in green spaces in Peterborough, we must ensure that the value of open green spaces is recognised and prioritised.
The city’s urban green spaces should feature as prominently following the end of the pandemic as they have during it. They can and should be used in addressing the next major crisis: climate change. Green spaces have a critical role as a part of a multi-tiered urban system. Climate change will exert major changes in behaviour, like we are experiencing now, and our green spaces should be recognised and designated a part of the statutory services needed to meet this crisis. We must invest in our green infrastructure as we do other types of urban infrastructures. Delivering foot access to nature must be a requirement for all citizens.
Green spaces also have the capacity to deliver further environmental benefits too. We can incorporate strategic policies that are more equitable in the provisions they deliver; urban green spaces must be provided for residents, but they can also deliver on their potential to reduce biodiversity loss and help combat climate change. With a commitment to increase shrewd tree planting, pollinator-friendly landscapes, nature linking and corridor projects, we can take the humble green space into the post lock-down future, ready to meet the next challenge.
Green spaces provide a life filled with nature but also a nature filled with life!