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What have we learnt about cities during COVID-19?
The COVID-19 lockdown has shown us that accessible green spaces are vital if we are to create liveable cities for the future.
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What is a truly ‘liveable’ city?

Learnings from the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown can help us to design and build more liveable cities, says Dr James Beard.

We would do well to remember how difficult the COVID-19 lockdown has been for people without access to a garden, local park, or an outdoor space to call their own.

In cities across the UK, for example, we saw how quickly green spaces became overcrowded when lockdown rules were first eased. It showed how desperate people were to escape the confines of their flats, apartments and bedsits, and how much we all cherish being – and socialising – in the open air.

In cities where high density living is common, people are reliant on public spaces in order to relax, exercise and interact with others.

The public realm and green space on the periphery of our towns and cities are under significant strain as housing density continues to increase to cope with rising urban populations – the UN predicts 68% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050.

Housing previously assumed to meet the needs of residents has been shown to be lacking during the pandemic, not least by the limited availability of outside space.

Pressures of demand, the cost of land and return on investment have combined to reduce the level of provision of local green infrastructure within new developments. Places where city dwellers can relax outdoors – particularly green spaces – are further from the front doors of those living in newer housing. And public spaces are used ever more intensively, resulting in wear-and-tear that can result in a deterioration in amenity.

Green space matters

So, in terms of urban planning and the liveability of our built environment, what are the lessons that we can learn from the pandemic? How can we build back better? Now is the time to ask these questions, record the answers and act on them. Crises are often catalysts of change – but people also tend to have short memories and if the moment is missed the lessons of the crisis can be lost.

Masterplanners, city planners, infrastructure designers and those responsible for approving new urban housing schemes need to give greater priority to the outdoors.

Green space matters. Personal space matters, too. Family homes – with gardens where possible – should form part of all developments.

But if gardens and even balconies are impractical, then attractive, safe, green public realm spaces should be easily accessible from people’s homes. As we’ve seen with the easing of lockdowns worldwide, people want and need open spaces where they can sit in contemplation, meet to talk and play with family and friends, exercise, or relax. Those spaces need to be easily accessible and enjoyable by all, meaning they must be safe and secure. Public realm should mean much more than paved plazas, with benches and bins and not much else. Concepts such as the 15-minute city are valuable.

The notion that our essential services should be within a 15-minute walk of our homes can help to inform what access to outside space truly means. People shouldn’t have to travel just to sit on the grass or enjoy the sunshine. That experience should be no more than a short and pleasant walk away.

Accessibility and inclusion

It requires us to rethink what a truly ‘liveable’ city must provide: access to good quality housing, jobs, education, health and social care, community resources – and, yes, green and open public space, which is so important to mental and physical health.

Liveable cities are inclusive, with low levels of poverty. They promote equality of access and opportunity between people from different sections of society.

The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated inequalities in society. The brunt of the pandemic has been borne by older people, the poorest, people from some black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, and people living with long-term health conditions.

These same groups experience some of the key challenges posed by housing renewal – from the importance of access to friends, family, and community ties, to the need for accessible or adaptable accommodation to meet physical needs, to the challenges of affordability. The importance of green space is often overlooked – even in addressing these challenges – and as a result, some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged in society live in a form of lockdown all the time.

Digital inclusion provides some answers – high-speed broadband and 5G can improve access to information and services. But liveability requires a wider range of access.

The inclusion of green transport infrastructure as part of master plans for housing regeneration now seems more important than ever. Part of the solution here lies in securing an effective active travel network – from walking and cycling routes and dedicated green corridors, to linear parks, canal towpaths and riverside links – to connect residential areas with high-quality natural environment as well as jobs and services.

Urban developments cannot be viewed in isolation either. The need for planners and developers to speak to one another – and to engage with and consult residents – will be essential to ensuring that housing is delivered in a way that meets the needs of communities. We have to understand what liveability looks like from everyone's point of view.

Keep it local

This may require something of us as well: a change in behaviour. We may need to consider how, how far, and how much we travel for work and leisure. If we want our cities to be more liveable, we need to really live in them.

If we want – and if we need – more than simply a home to live in when we’re not at work, we need to embrace our local area. We may need to shop and pursue recreation locally, buy local produce, leave the car at home, interact with our neighbours, enjoy and value our public realms, and use our local green spaces.

At Mott MacDonald, we have been helping our clients to deliver more inclusive housing, transport, commercial and retail projects and urban development and renewal opportunities by helping them to work through and understand the implications for different sections of society.

We know it is a tremendous challenge to make already densely populated cities more liveable while at the same time meeting the constant demand for affordable housing.

But we need to ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that, because a development is meeting existing design standards and legislative requirements, we are doing all we can do.

We can and must go beyond compliance, to something that is genuinely transformative, and that delivers truly liveable cities – with spaces to walk, sit, play, and breathe – for all of our urban communities.

Dr James Beard

Technical principal, social development and inclusion, Mott MacDonald

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