World economies have pulled the brakes and global capitalism has ground to a relative halt, foreshadowing what may become the “Noble Recession”. Yet whilst national media debates the extent of state intervention and queries, for the second time in a decade, our reliance on economic growth, the effects have been localised and personalised. We are compelled to spend time in relative isolation and our lives have, by necessity, become more immediate in their experiences. The focus has shifted from shared spaces to private ones and ‘the small things’ matter more than ever before.
Our homes have, unsurprisingly, proven to be particularly important. “Won’t it be nice,” a neighbour mentions to their housemate in conversation, “when we don’t have to work and sleep in the same room”. Across the fence a neighbour quietly confesses “I’m so pleased we bought the garden flat and not the one on top, they’ve been stuck in there for months”. Uses have coalesced and many of us now shop, educate, labour and relax in the same place. There will be many people who crave private amenity and to separate the component parts of their lives back out, whilst others will have found greater freedom and flexibility than they expected. There will be important lessons here about how we take such matters into account when designing future developments.
The space between buildings requires more negotiation and has, often awkwardly at times, been defined by varying interpretations of social distancing. Yet access to green space has proven paramount. With all but very limited travel possible, the Green Belt has – in so far as it ever has done – offered little in terms of accessible amenity. Meanwhile, parks and commons, woods and allotments, have given respite to many. These often-overlooked pockets of space, knitted into our communities, have proven themselves of real value. It would be both environmentally and socially beneficial for us to plan for more such spaces in our cities.
What then of planning? The focus so far during this pandemic has rightly been on those serving our country as frontline NHS staff. Establishment of the health service, on 5 July 1948, was a bold and fundamentally redistributive effort to enhance our collective well-being. It would be remiss to forget that four days earlier, on 1 July 1948, the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 came into effect underpinned by similar principles: development rights were nationalised and placed within the gift of local authorities, with the state to share in value creation where permission was given.
As we begin a slow and tentative emergence from lockdown, the big questions will of course be there to discuss and debate. It may be, though, that there is also a different emphasis on how we go about our lives and, consequently, the ways in which we perceive and use the built environment. In these circumstances, it will be planning that is deserving of our attention. The question of what and how we build has rarely been so apposite.
Jonathan Manns is Board Director, Head of Planning and Development, at Rockwell. He is a writer, speaker, lecturer, campaigner and convenor of the APPG for London’s Planning and Built Environment.
WhenThisIsAllOver is the London Society's debate about what the post-virus, post-lockdown world will and should look like. Contributions so far include:
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