The environment we live in and constantly interact with changes slowly so we do not always notice the shifts in emphasis. Let’s take cars. They dominate our experience of villages, towns and cities in a way that most would now class as egregious, but the change has happened slowly so that it has never been viewed as a hostile takeover of public space.

However, the slowly moving, but ever-present changes briefly ground to a halt. A factory reset was implemented when lockdown came into force due to the COVID-19 pandemic allowing for an unprecedented moment to revaluate our use of space both indoors and outdoors.

Suddenly, the everyday use of outdoor space became the most sought-after commodity.

Public Open Space – Health and Wellbeing

It quickly became apparent that public open spaces have provided a haven for people during the restrictions placed on gathering this year. Areas to socially distance, but still interact with friends and family, are vital to maintain good mental health and open spaces provided the stage for these exchanges to play out. Rather than activity based social interactions, spaces to dwell, sit and communicate were required, but how many of these exist is questionable.

London largely benefits from its untouchable  historic and Royal Parks which remain a vital resource for many in an otherwise densely populated city with the Office for National Statistics asserts that 44% of Londoners live within a 5 minute walk of a park. However, many of the other larger city’s such as Manchester and Birmingham fall short on this precious asset. Every portion of developable land seems to be consumed for commercial gains or tarmacked over to accommodate rush hour footfall. The scavenger hunt for green space in these cities often results in a church with a halo like park to protect it, overlooking the health and wellbeing benefits that unquestionably come free with creating high quality public open spaces.

It is this attitude that needs to change. Health and wellbeing is becoming more quantifiable in terms of costs and benefits which immediately makes it more interesting to decision makers. A development may provide a certain amount of retail space or housing numbers, but what are the wider implications? A move towards more holistic design practices that give parameters such as health and wellbeing a place at the table would benefit everyone, creating a more connected and inter-dependent urban realm, away from the controlled environments exalted in recent times by Anna Minton in the text ‘Ground Control’.

Creating space for all

Public space comes in many forms, large formal and informal parks, sports fields, recreational walks, the traditional village green and the streets we move around. Making sure these spaces are in the right place is important, having to drive to an open green space puts pressure on other infrastructure and is unsustainable. Segregated cycle routes and a distribution of significant public open spaces throughout towns, cities and suburbia ensure that children have safe places to play and everyone can access the free psychological benefits that spending time outdoors has on us all.

Despite the various forms, public space is rarely equitable. Looking again at cars, only around 20% of households do not own a vehicle, however for the lowest income bracket this rises to 44% (BBC – 10 charts that tell the story of Britain’s Roads) and yet this group rely on access to public spaces more than most with lower income groups being more likely to not have access to private outdoor space. Which is why truly public open space is so important, it should be for everyone, without discrimination.

Ensuring that these spaces are not only in the right locations but also serving all of society has become even more important during this pandemic. For example, parks and streets without benches are not suitable for older people who may need to take an increased number of short breaks or if a mown path is the only option then the space is not accessible for wheelchair users.

Creating equitable spaces should always have been considered, but when everyone must use public open spaces, it puts there deficiencies into sharp focus.

New normal

As time goes by and things go back to ‘normal’ there are some changes that we must not forget. The lack of cars saw large numbers of people cycling as it was safer to do so, public parks became the centre of social interactions away from TVs and phone screens and the pressure was not on building roads but closing them so that the public have enough space to interact with one another safely.

This may not be a permanent reset, but what have we experienced that can make our urban environment better?

This article was written by James Fairweather, Associate Urban Designer and Graeme Pratt, Senior Urban Designer from our East Midlands office. For more information about the items discussed in this article please contact us.