Jo Corfield: London must open up more space for Londoners

Jo Corfield: London must open up more space for Londoners

Parisian authorities sent a strong message to their citizens on Tuesday by banning daytime outdoor exercise as part of their attempts to contain the coronavirus outbreak. The draconian move comes several weeks after the closure of all the capital’s parks – part of their initial attempt to restrict social movement within the city. Could London’s lockdown be on the same trajectory as that of Paris? Perhaps.

Although Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, has said that closing parks and open spaces in the UK should be an “absolute last resort”, some landowners have already felt forced to take action. Last weekend Lambeth Council closed Brockwell Park temporarily after 3,000 people visited during the lockdown. In normal circumstances, this volume of visitors would be welcome (reports say the park can easily attract 10,000 people a weekend) but too many visitors decided to sunbathe and get together in large groups – both banned under current government guidance. Lambeth Council is not alone: Hammersmith & Fulham has closed all its parks for the time being and, in a joint decision with police, Tower Hamlets closed Victoria Park on 25 March, though it will re-open on Saturday with restrictions.

If the government decides to take a more heavy-handed approach, this could impact all of us. Access to green spaces can be restorative, uplifting, and healing for both physical and mental health. But park closures should also be seen as an equity issue because the impacts would fall most heavily on people who live in crowded, shared accommodation and those who don’t have access to a private garden. In short, closures would have concerning public health implications, particularly in London, where more than half of homes are flats (compared to around 17 per cent in the rest of England).

Thankfully, the government and councils appear to be aware of the benefits that parks provide, and are doing what they can to keep them open. Lambeth is, for example, running a campaign around Brockwell Park to remind people how they can enjoy the space safely.  London Councils and boroughs are also working together to provide consistent messaging across the capital.

But as well as encouraging people to change their behaviour we should also consider how we can create more space to make social distancing easier in cities. Policymakers should look abroad for examples of cities that are taking the opportunity to reallocate space from cars to people. In Canada, the city of Calgary is experimenting with road closures to give pedestrians a more realistic chance of socially distancing. Road closures are something that the authorities in Sao Paulo have been doing successfully for some time too. They close one of the city’s busiest avenues between 7:00 am and 7:00 pm every Sunday and bank holiday, turning it into a de facto park. This policy was in place before the coronavirus hit, but it could be applied in the current crisis with good effect. Could London’s own car free day be extended?

Other countries are supporting and encouraging people to cycle for essential trips to the supermarket or to work. By cycling, they’re able to avoid public transport and ease the pressure on stretched services. Berlin, for example, has widened cycle lanes to make them social-distance-friendly. And New Zealand has launched a $7m (£3.3m) pilot fund to help councils reallocate road space to make active travel safer and easier during the Covid-19 outbreak.

And what about opening-up more green spaces across the city? Some commentators have suggested that that rather than closing big parks so more people end up packed into smaller parks, we could temporarily reclaim private green spaces. Think of all the golf courses lying dormant across the city. Or the grounds of private schools.

Instead of following Paris’ example of shutting people out of green spaces and limiting their choices, let’s hope that our government looks to these more creative approaches to give Londoners more space, not less.

Jo Corfield is head of communications for think tank Centre for London. This is a slightly updated version of an article originally published on the Centre for London website. Follow Jo on Twitter. Photograph: Millfields Park, E5 by Dave Hill.



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