Landscape Journal - Summer 2020: Bringing nature into the city

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1. Valentine’s Park.

Meredith Whitten

Valuing London’s urban green space in a time of crisis – and in everyday life As we self-isolate, social distance and work and study from home, we’ve become acutely aware of the value of spending time outdoors. With most parks and green spaces open – for now – the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting just how precious and vital public green spaces are. This is particularly the case in urban areas, where population and development density already limit the availability of nature for residents. Creation of London’s first public green space – Victoria Park, which opened in 1845 – centred around public health. The spread of disease among the 400,000 residents in the crowded East End was an urgent concern at the time. Access to nature was considered one of the main solutions (another was affordable housing). The Victorian “parks for

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the people” concept set in motion an expectation of access to green space that remains deeply entrenched in the capital and other urban areas today. The connection between Londoners and their green spaces has been on full display recently, with residents flocking to the capital’s public green spaces, despite urgent requests to stay at home and keep a safe distance from others. In many ways, Londoners are acting on instinct: on a typical sunny spring day, spending the afternoon in one of London’s more than 3,000 green spaces would be normal behaviour. Even before Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered pubs, restaurants and other meeting places to close, Londoners crowded their green spaces. And, in these democratic spaces, the norm is not social distancing. The fact that parks and green

spaces remain one of the last places open during the pandemic signals how essential these spaces are. At the forefront of discussions and debates in the recent weeks is an effort to balance public safety with access to the health and wellbeing benefits green spaces provide. However, green spaces contribute so much more to urban life. Among other things, they provide cleaner air, urban cooling and vital habitat. They help us get to know our neighbours and feel a little less isolated. They also increase tourism, enhance productivity, provide employment opportunities and reduce energy consumption. You’d be hard-pressed to find another urban asset that contributes such a range of benefits with such limited investment. Yet, our current situation also reveals limitations in how green space is planned, managed and used – and