Morro de Moravia, Medellín, Colombia

Lungs of the City

The value of Urban Green Spaces in the face of adversity

It is Monday morning, the start of the daily internal mental battle of dualistic voices. Who do you listen to? The little angel on your left shoulder telling you not to step out of your house because the outside is dangerous, or the little devil on your right shoulder tempting you to go out and enjoy the sunshine? And then you choose to go for a run in the park. Your sense of guilt and anxiety might creep in while you are out but the exercise leaves you with an endorphin boost to last for days!

With the imposed restrictions on public life around the world, access to green spaces and amenities has never been more appreciated. Since physical distancing has become the new normal, behaviors in and perceptions of public space have already changed dramatically. But instead of worrying, we could look at this crisis as a unique opportunity to rethink how we want our green spaces to look and how they may be safely adapted to our new needs.

Not surprisingly, history shows us that pandemics have for a long time urged cities to make more green space for their residents. It was due to the cholera and yellow fever outbursts that some of the world’s most prominent urban infrastructural and landscape interventions came into existence, such as Central park, built to disinfect New York City. Urban design in the 19th century was rapidly transformed to incorporate underground wastewater systems with long, straight boulevards on top to get rid of the fetid odor of water pooling in the road curves and allow for the installation of long potable water passages. 

But what prospects do cities face today? Are regulations of control over public gatherings, social distancing and crowd dispersing going to outlast the pandemic? Is ‘social distancing’, although vital during the pandemic, threatening to become the norm?

‘Urban sanctuary’
Illustration by author

This challenges us to rethink our approach to design in many aspects. In London, one of the current epicenters of Covid-19, the government allows a maximum dosage of 30-60mins daily exercise which is, for some, their only chance to engage with the outside world. With many of the typical City of London citizens living in homes that have little to no access to private gardens, this is also their only chance to connect with nature. But are the busy parks even what we long for or is it a place of intimacy and isolation, a type of urban sanctuary to escape the world and reconnect with the inner self? 

Image of city crowds sitting on the street kerb in Austin

As governments decide to shut parks and trails, people are overcrowding all that is left open, even their own neighbourhood’s pavements. Some cities have now closed roads to traffic, allowing more people to walk and cycle. Others have been doing this long before the pandemic. Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, has been a real Urban Design trend setter for the last decade. Its Sunday Ciclovía is the largest, most frequent mass recreation event in the world which the local government has run since 1974 and all of this roadspace is added to the urban landscape without spending a single city peso. Just picture 1 million happy cyclists, headed by the Colombian dance diva Shakira, singing ‘La Bicicleta’. It won’t take long for people to get obsessed with such a trend!

Image of Shakira and Carlos Vives music video for ‘La Bicicleta

In a planet with over 7 billion inhabitants and more than a third at home under some form of restriction, one wonders what health implications, both physical and mental, we might see as a result?

The truth is, global urbanisation has already significantly reduced access to green spaces despite well grounded evidence of its positive impact on our mental health and well-being. It is well known that people who have regular access to green urban spaces experience less anxiety and depression, greater well-being and healthier cortisol profiles. ‘Blue spaces’ (sea, coast, river) are associated with just as many positive measures of physical and mental well-being: it is not about the colour but the opportunity to behave and respond to your environment in a particular way. However, with such limited access to these green and blue spaces, people in urban environments experience increased levels of stress and panic, which is counterproductive in the fight of a virus. No wonder why psychologists around the world are urging people to go to their local parks to combat their loneliness rather than staying home on the verge of losing their sanity.

Interestingly, with the closure of gyms and playgrounds, we see plenty of people reclaiming open spaces in inventive ways — using street and park furniture as exercise equipment or fences as badminton nets. Our job, as architects and urban designers, is to now build on people’s creativity and develop more flexible frameworks to create space for people in a changing world. It is time to be resilient, encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration and socioecological strategies with a long-lasting impact, starting from widening sidewalks and setting up pinch points at park entries to transforming entire streets and neighbourhoods. 

A few examples of truly resilient outdoor spaces around the world are: Surrey Bend Park, a recreational park which is also an important ecosystem services corridor; Hinge Park, a children playground but also a natural wetland; and Morro de Moravia, previously a landfill, now turned into a park with community gardens. Such projects are exemplar for linking the public health agenda with the public space agenda and yet, in times of economic uncertainty when city budgets start to tighten, parks are usually the first to get cut, proving our governments’ inability to capture the true value that urban nature delivers. It is, therefore, time to demonstrate how these equigenic environments reduce health inequalities and provide a cost-effective public health solution without green spaces having to scramble for cash.

It is true that our innate nature makes us look at solutions from a ‘top-down’ view. But what if we, as citizens, reverse the dynamic and take matters into our hands at a local level? As the celebrated urbanist and diversity advocate Jane Jacobs (whose birthday happens to be today!) remarked in her 1961 treatise, perhaps ‘bottom-up’ should be the way to go and ‘small’ will be the future.