In 1830s Britain, ‘King Cholera’ stalked the recently laid, unplanned streets of the towns and cities created by the industrial revolution. Thousands died in London; hundreds of thousands died globally.
In response, the urban built environment around the world changed significantly: new initiatives brought clean drinking water, sanitary and hygienic homes, proper sewerage and the creation of city parks, many of which still oxygenate the lungs of urbanites today. A public health crisis led to the birth of modern-day urban planning.
In 2020, another pandemic – this time twinned with the acute climate and ecological emergencies – demands another radical rethink of the city. Urban space must be reimagined to fit new working patterns, to enable a socio-economic recovery and deliver our green goals.
COVID-19, and the restrictions intended to control it, have brought cities to a standstill: empty streets, deserted squares and vacant cafés. As people travelled less, new social norms have been created. This offers a chance for a ‘new normal’ in our travel habits, substantially different from the old one.
“The biggest issue we have is cars”, says Shankari Raj, founder and director of Nudge Group and member of RIBA’s British Architectural Trust Board. “As soon as we deal with the car issue, we deal with the urban space issue. Get rid of roads and have wider streets, allowing for tree lined pavements and bike lanes.”
Cities have always reflected the prevailing culture and technology. Today, after decades of “car as king” culture, we typically have urban layouts dominated by the needs of motorists. In London for instance, 80% of public space is road.
During lockdown however, people’s propensity to walk and cycle has tended to increase, facilitated in many cities by the authorities reallocating road space from cars to pedestrians and cyclists. Data from the Department of Transport indicates that for the UK, motor vehicle usage on 1st March 2020 was 104% of the level in early February; across April, it averaged 36% of February’s figure. By the same measure, cycling levels reached 200-300% during most weekends in April and May. The decline in traffic resulted in a widespread reduction in air pollution. In Madrid, nitrogen dioxide concentrations fell by 62%.
CO2 emissions also shrank. The International Energy Agency expects global emissions to decline by 8% in 2020, in part due to reduced transport usage. This is six times larger than the record reduction caused by the financial crisis in 2008.
Some jurisdictions are working to make the “emergency” shift to active travel more permanent. Under Milan’s new Strade Aperte (‘Open Streets’) plan for instance, 35km of urban cycle routes will be created, pavements will be widened, and city centre parking reduced.
To stay within the 1.5°C limit established in the Paris Agreement, these record emissions reductions must be repeated year-on-year for decades. The walking and cycling habits formed during lockdown need to become part of our psyche, and be inscribed in our infrastructure.
Will these new, car-free cities be empty of visitors? Not if, as Shankari Raj puts it, we can “rethink how we design and use our public space so that people actually linger and hang out in them more often”.
Simple measures can make it pleasant and convenient for non-motorists to stop in the city: benches, trees and bike racks. Public space can be repurposed away from cars. The Lithuanian capital Vilnius for instance, allowed restaurants and bars to spread into plazas, squares and 18 closed streets in order to allow them to operate in a socially-distanced way. Four streets in the Old Town of Bristol are to be permanently pedestrianised this year.
Accessible, human-scale common spaces that allow citizens to meet and mix (for the time being at a distance) create more public life. Jane Jacobs was an early proponent of such people-based planning. Her vision of an ‘urban village’ spawned an urban design movement centred on the idea that everything you need – schools, shops, recreation and work – should be within walking distance. It is reflected in Sustrans’ 2019 campaign for 20-minute neighbourhoods to be a central principle of the UK planning system.
The COVID crisis has added impetus to this approach. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, for instance, is aiming to make Paris a city where it takes no longer than un quart d’heure for anyone to travel to work or school. Hidalgo advanced her programme during Paris’s lockdown, converting miles of road into cycling-friendly ‘corona pistes’.
Urban space needs to be designed on a more human scale. For many people, lockdown highlighted the benefits of having everything within walking distance. The planning system is a key mechanism for delivering neighbourhoods, town centres and even transport hubs that provide easy access to the essentials.
Parks and recreation
Lockdown was also a reminder that green space is an essential service. The benefits of urban nature and green infrastructure have long been championed. In his book Happy City, Charles Montgomery explains how people who can see and spend more time in nature have been shown to be friendlier, happier and healthier. Research conducted by Fields in Trust estimated that parks and green spaces save the NHS around £111 million per year in reduced GP visits.
City parks can reduce the urban heat island effect; trees act as carbon sinks; shorter vegetation can reduce air pollution and mitigate flood risk; and interconnected ‘green corridors’ boost biodiversity. Given these benefits, it is unsurprising that tree planting, green spaces and green infrastructure were among the priority actions for a resilient recovery set out by the Committee on Climate Change.
Awareness of nature and its impact on well-being has been particularly keen during periods of lockdown. A YouGov poll showed that 68% of UK adults either agreed or strongly agreed that spending time noticing nature around them made them feel happier during the restrictions earlier this year. Furthermore, 55% said they planned to make a habit of spending time in nature once normality returned.
There is also awareness of the inadequacies of the green space to which people have access. Research commissioned by the countryside charity CPRE found that 72% of adults in London think their local green space, or nearby countryside, could be enhanced. Of these, 51% wanted to see more wildlife and nearly half (47%) wanted a greater variety of plant life.
Hannah Hickman, a planning consultant and senior research fellow at the University of the West of England’s Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environment, believes that:
“We should learn from the benefits and consider what that means for our expectations on developers in terms of green corridors, blue corridors and provision of cycling infrastructure.”
Local authorities may lack the resources to achieve this themselves, which makes the planning system crucial. According to Hickman, “you’re working with developers who want to build. We have to work with them to be creative.”
Expecting higher environmental standards from new developments – starting with the concept of biodiversity net gain and the need for local nature recovery plans, set out in the Environment Bill – will support local authorities to embed such considerations into planning decisions.
The COVID crisis has illuminated the links between public health and access to high-quality public space. Greening our cities contributes to improving public wellbeing and addressing the climate and ecological emergencies. It should be at the heart of the post-COVID recovery.
The leading edge
A socio-economic recovery which also delivers on green goals requires focused leadership, both at the national and local levels. National government needs to define a radical vision and create a framework to enable municipalities to act accordingly.
Green thinking needs to be given the necessary priority to enable it to cross-cut decision making. Hannah Hickman emphasises the need for councils to achieve corporate level buy-in: “The top priority is to understand what a green recovery and climate change action really mean for all the different areas of the authority, for social services, education and public health”.
Local planning decisions apply national policies, which need to promote a healthier, greener and low-carbon built environment. The UK government’s recent Planning White Paper shows some progress towards this, with measures to improve biodiversity and address climate change through development. However, the details are still lacking, as is a commitment to release resources to facilitate local delivery.
When a post-COVID recovery unfolds, it will be an opportunity to rethink business-as-usual. In a majority urban world, cities are part of the problem, both in terms of climate change and the spread of pandemics – and their redesign is pivotal to the solutions, just as it was during the 19th century cholera epidemics.
The system change required to respond to this defining moment needs leadership, creativity and boldness. But it also needs us to retain the positive memories, of traffic noise giving way to birdsong and of cycling along quiet streets. Only if we hold onto, and act in line with, these values will we have a meaningfully green recovery.
Featured image: Sam Saunders (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Flickr.