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Post-pandemic the city's green spaces need to be a network, not just a destination argues Dr Meredith Whitten (@urbanparksgirl)

With the rich inheritance of green space across Britain’s cities, it’s easy to take these spaces for granted. However, the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown have delivered a jolting reminder of just how vital green spaces are to daily life, particularly in densely populated and developed urban areas, such as London.

At the same time, the lockdown has exposed how unevenly provided London’s green spaces are. Neighbourhoods across the capital are deficient in access to nature and the benefits it provides, and this has been felt acutely by some more than others. Further, the throngs of Londoners crowding into public green spaces during the lockdown highlights the intense demand and pressure on these spaces that existed well before the pandemic.

At one level, this simply reflects constraints to providing green space in London, which is 14 times as densely populated as the England and Wales average. Yet, this pressure also reveals the limitations of taking a narrow approach to greening the city.  

The concept of publicly accessible green space is a vaunted legacy of Victorian idealism and ingenuity. Motivated by their concern for public health – notably the spread of diseases such as cholera and smallpox – and for improving the behaviour and morality of the poor and working classes, the Victorians introduced the idea of the public park. Today’s health and wellbeing issues, including diabetes and obesity, stress and social isolation, differ from those of the 19th century. Together with other contemporary concerns, such as the climate crisis – a key justification cited by London and other cities around the world for adopting urban greening policies – this demonstrates that what we ask of our green spaces today has multiplied.

Cities don’t stand still – they are continually and strategically evolving. Likewise, landscape is not static. London is a dynamic city, and its green spaces need to adapt and change along with the city around them. Instead of narrowly adhering to a 19th-century approach to green space, we can harness the innovative, progressive spirit the Victorians applied to the challenges of their era by allowing London’s urban landscapes to reflect and redress changing practices, attitudes, and values about nature and equity.

Planning laws already protect a lot of existing, and often historic, public parks and green spaces. But, we also must be realistic about the limited opportunities to create new, accessible and traditionally designed green spaces in urban London. Instead, a contemporary urban greening agenda that works in tandem with London’s long-established public spaces could enhance both human and ecological health. Such an approach includes infusing grey spaces with more green elements, such as vegetated streetscapes, roofs, walls and swales, street trees and green verges at scales yet unseen.

Green spaces should reflect – not restrict – how Londoners move about the city, becoming a more active part of the urban environment. If, as some predict, more post-pandemic journeys will occur by walking and cycling and fewer by car, green spaces will play an increasing role in London’s infrastructure. We must recognise that many urban green spaces are places we travel through, not necessarily to. Thus, green spaces should be designed not just as destinations or escapes from the city, but as integral parts of the urban fabric, as necessary to and interwoven in the city as the buildings, roads and other infrastructure around them.

We must think about green spaces as a network, not as isolated islands of amenity marooned in the city. Instead, we should connect these spaces via other types of green infrastructure and the communities that live there. When linked, these various green elements provide a green experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. Achieving this will require breaking out of silos, collaborating across jurisdictions and working at different scales. Instead of adhering to arbitrary boundaries, we should think strategically about green space planning, ensuring all Londoners have access to the benefits of these spaces.

The public park movement revolutionised cities in 19th-century Britain. Today, an innovative, interconnected and forward-looking approach to urban greening can transform post-pandemic London, leaving a legacy for future generations.

Dr. Meredith Whitten is with the Department of Geography & Environment at the London School of Economics & Political Science

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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