This article is part of our Local Week series, a collection of articles focusing on the challenges facing communities as they confront the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can find the other articles in the series on our Local Week page.
During the current lockdown we are witnessing the largest social experiment in history, and one which would have been unthinkable to orchestrate for the sake of research. People’s use of time, the places they go, and how they move around have all changed. What can we learn from this and what does this mean for designing and improving our towns and cities for the future?
Residents are adapting fast to their new situation in the lockdown. Friends, family, and neighbours are rallying to support each other, building a growing sense of community. In the last three weeks, I’ve been looking for answers in communities in my hometown of Bristol in the UK.
Despite many social inequalities which persist, I believe there are aspects of our lives in the UK lockdown that have been reduced to some essentials which we have in common: we all need to eat, exercise, and be sociable. In Bristol, it is evident all around me that food, exercise and loneliness are taking people out of their homes, whether they live in a high-rise flat or a house with a garden. How people go about these three essentials in their lives is very much intertwined.
We are natural hunter-gatherers and we take pleasure and satisfaction from finding food. In lockdown, we need to buy more food to cook at home because we are not eating out or on the hoof and many of our households are fuller than normal. We also have most of the day indoors and more time to cook.
In my neighbourhood in Bristol, people have looked harder than normal for local food growers and providers. Butchers, bakers, and fruit and veg traders have rushed to expand their ability to sell either from their shops or via food box deliveries.
One of my local restaurants overcame the problem of having to close in lockdown by contacting all their suppliers and quickly setting up themed food boxes, which are selling well. Another friend who normally supplies restaurants is now doing food boxes for main essentials as home deliveries, saving the hassle and stress of queuing at the supermarket.
Local Mutual Aid WhatsApp groups and other social media channels are being used to share information about food sources and to ask for and receive help getting supplies. In two neighbourhoods in Bristol with high levels of deprivation, Knowle West and Southmead, mutual support is taking place on a much larger scale. Local organisations have reacted quickly to identify needs, which will have lasting consequences.
“Local organisations have reacted quickly to identify needs, which will have lasting consequences.”
A friend runs a food bank in Southmead and serves cheap hot meals daily to those identified as the most vulnerable. She says “these people are the most isolated, neglected because they are on the edge of needing social care, have no safety net, no network, no people in a position to help, no internet or money, nothing but two tins of food in their cupboard”.
Post-lockdown, the innovative local businesses that have emerged from the crisis need to be encouraged to continue to find ways to mesh with people’s lives and compete with the big supermarkets.
Now that businesses cannot argue it is not possible, some people may choose to stay working from home after lockdown is lifted, but for those who will go back to work – many with manual or face-to-face work will have to – they will find it challenging to continue to shop locally. Perhaps the answer is to provide more flexible hours for both workers and independent traders so that support for local businesses continues to boost our local economy and create stronger bonds in our community.
People are treasuring their one opportunity a day to exit their home for exercise and are therefore thoughtful about what they choose to do. This reveals what people really want in their local areas. They may combine a shopping trip with a walk or run, but they are also exploring their neighbourhoods in ways they have not done before, discovering many more places.
Since lockdown, all sports facilities and playgrounds are shut and car parks are closed at popular open spaces on the edge of Bristol, like Ashton Court and Leigh Woods, so people are not driving to these places. Instead they are staying in the city to do their exercise, which has had an impact on the use of public spaces.
Pre-lockdown, Queen Square, a formal open space in Bristol’s city centre, would have been covered with people relaxing on benches or the grass all day, and at weekends attending events. In lockdown, this space is very little used, not only because nearby offices, restaurants and shops are closed, but also because it is too confined, with only small formal areas of grass and benches which people, because of physical distancing, are uncomfortable to use.
While Queen Square is empty, Bristol’s harbourside is bustling. A large continuous open space, it has an interesting and varied pedestrian and cycle route which loops around the edge of the Floating Harbour, free of traffic and connecting to all parts of the city.
The route is overlooked by flats, restaurants, bars and museums, open and bustling outside lockdown. There, people feel safe to jog, walk or cycle with enough space between each other and they can enjoy watching other people and boating activities. A friend, jogging there on a beautiful still evening at its busiest time last week, described how someone on a boat blasted out Middle Eastern tunes which travelled across the still water and everywhere people stopped to listen, entranced.
“A lack of access to open spaces in poorer communities is deepening the divide in many places.”
In my neighbourhood, a residential area 40 minutes’ walk from the city centre, formal play spaces are empty but Redland Green, an informal green space, is busier than ever. It has a pedestrian and cycle route crossing it from north Bristol towards the city centre, and it links to several nearby residential neighbourhoods. It is adjacent to a secondary school, church, tennis club, bowling green and allotments.
The park itself has an undulating grassy terrain with woodland and large mature trees, and has no passing traffic. People can relax safely in different intimate areas, kids can play in the trees or create downhill cycle tracks, and a chap even practices his tightrope walking between two trees. While it has always been a popular space to pass through, during the lockdown people are spending more time there as it seems to offer what they need.
But not all residential areas in the city have access to open space. The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the inequalities that already exist in our society. A lack of access to open spaces in poorer communities is deepening the divide in many places. Knowle West, for example, has no parks except for the large informal green spaces which surround it and isolate the neighbourhood from the rest of the city. These green spaces are on very steep land and access to them is via narrow, dark alleyways, which can be frightening.
The resourceful residents of Knowle West have looked for access to nature elsewhere, setting up an expanding gardening group sharing advice and a lively allotment community, but if we are to learn anything from what is needed in this health crisis, it is to improve these kinds of spaces urgently. We need to create higher density towns and cities within which there are open spaces to boost people’s mental health and the planet’s health. Bristol’s Harbourside and Redland Green are well-designed, traffic-free areas with multiple flexible uses and well-connected pedestrian and cycle routes.
Streets for People, Not Cars
With people in lockdown staying local and walking to shops and open spaces more than before, many streets that connect these places are more populated. With few commuters and no rush hour, the streets are quiet, with people often choosing to walk down the middle of the street – not just because they are distancing themselves from others, but also because they can. Their first inclination is to take over street space.
There is a growing movement across the world to reallocate street space to pedestrians and cyclists. This requires a strategic shift in infrastructure, and now is the time to do it, while people can take over our streets.
On 27 March, Berlin – learning from Bogotá – redrew road markings using removable tape, paint, and temporary signage, to create ‘pop-up’ cycle lanes that allow for physical distancing. Since then, residents in 113 other German cities have formally submitted applications for similar bike lanes. Milan is following suit with 35 kilometres of streets to be transformed this summer, and there are a few small experiments taking place around the UK. These temporary uses show what is possible and could then be made permanent.
We have been given a blank canvas and the opportunity to rethink what is the norm. Post-lockdown, if street networks can be made safer and more attractive, people would choose to use them more and continue to support local businesses and the community. Not everyone has local shops and open spaces, which puts even more emphasis on the need for greener and quieter streets. A friend living in central Bristol describes how he walks up to two miles to local shops and open spaces in other neighbourhoods because he has no local ones. He seeks out the leafiest streets for his route but finds very few.
“We have been given a blank canvas and the opportunity to rethink what is the norm.”
The majority of movement in towns and cities during lockdown is for leisure and food (as well as travelling required by frontline workers) and there has been a shift to more walking and cycling, especially with the sense of fear around taking public transport due to COVID-19. It is possible that this will affect people’s choices about how they commute to work post-lockdown, and they will seek ways to travel more by bike or carpool, and perhaps the use of autonomous vehicles will accelerate.
Carolyn Fairbairn, Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry, said on Radio 4 on 17 April that we are likely to establish a ‘new norm’ when people return to work, such as staggering of rush hours and encouraging more to work from home. If such an influential leader realises that mass behaviour change is needed, there is hope that we could nudge many more policymakers. In order to tackle climate and health crises, it is evident that we need to develop stronger networks of safe, green streets that connect significant destinations.
Preparing our urban areas for climate change and health crises starts with re-designing our streets and establishing the ‘new norm’ before we fall back into old habits. People have now experienced their streets and local green spaces differently. In future, they may be more prepared to leave their cars to walk and cycle more, and local authorities may be more willing to back radical redesigns of city space.
This crisis has made it increasingly clear that, just like eating and moving our bodies, social interaction is an essential human function. And, as we find new ways to navigate the former, many of us are finding ourselves provided with new opportunities for the latter.
Shopping locally can offer a chance for socialisation, as well as exercise on foot or by bicycle. Mutual support, of the kind being provided through Mutual Aid WhatsApp Groups, messaging services and helplines, is also leading to other ways of meeting more people, whether during the weekly NHS clap, when neighbours grab the chance to catch up on the pavement, or chatting at a distance in a food shop queue.
This contrasts with pre-lockdown times, when neighbours would whizz past each other, briefly saying ‘hi’ by a noisy road before jumping in their car. All these opportunities to be with people, even with physical distancing, brings longer-lasting joy than hearing them on the phone.
In Knowle West, a local group communicates with residents via Facebook, making sure they know what is going on and how they can influence it. They operate a phone helpline during COVID-19, offering health guides, food banks and financial advice, and are prioritising contact with those most in need, especially kids most at risk. Information, advice, and IT training is shared on the Facebook group using podcasts.
Learning from how people are coping in lockdown will help us make the right decisions about retrofitting existing places or designing new ones. The future is not about a stark choice between densification or disaggregation, because we can prepare for both by creating networks of safe, multifunctional streets across our towns and cities which connect to adaptable open spaces and lively shopping areas.
In the last few weeks, communities have developed more of a sense of the collective whole and mutual support and have shown what people prioritise in their local areas, offering important lessons for designers and policymakers. A YouGov poll has just reported that only 9% of Britons want to return to ‘normal’ after the coronavirus outbreak is over, citing many positive changes during the lockdown including cleaner air, more wildlife and stronger communities – this shows that people are ready for a radical change.