COVID19 crisis highlights the need for accessible and productive urban green spaces

Densification is a central element of urban planning strategies in all the Nordic countries in order to deal with the challenges of rapid urbanisation and create more sustainable cities. The COVID19 pandemic adds new perspectives to urban planning, posing significant questions regarding the design and management of public space, accessibility, socio-economic inequality and more secure and resource-efficient food systems.

How should we design our cities and public spaces?

Urban density is only one of several aspect of the compact city, a widely used term by urban practitioners all across the world. The concept is based on strategic densification of urban areas, combined with a variety of mobility options, notably walking, cycling and public transport, to ensure high mobility and easy access to local services and amenities. The benefits include reduced need for transport, less energy consumption and more efficient use of land and infrastructure.

According to Ryan Weber, Senior Research Advisor at Nordregio, the design and availability of urban green areas plays an essential role in creating what he calls ‘high-quality active public spaces’. Weber is currently involved in the research projects Urban visions of the green and recreative city and NORDGREEN – Smart planning for healthy and green Nordic cities.

“Everyone is now aware of the term social distancing,” says Weber. “From the perspective of green space planning and design, we could even transform this term to social density. It’s clear that from now on, the issue of pandemic response and public space management should influence the design, development and distribution of urban green and recreational spaces quite considerably.”

The challenge will be to balance the ideals of the compact city and the ability to cope with similar situations in the future, requiring social distancing measures. This brings up a range of issues regarding green space planning, design and management.

“We’ve seen a shift towards more liberal planning approaches and market led urban development, where private companies are increasingly responsible for urban development projects and where profitability is an even more explicit priority,” Weber says. “This has certainly led to densification but it also raises the question whether or not an appropriate amount of public green space is being included in these projects. Fortunately, we have the planning tools to respond to this, for instance by setting ambitious green factor target levels to ensure a certain amount of green public space and promote local biodiversity.”

Socio-economic inequality plays a role

Data from the Nordic countries suggests that the COVID19 virus and the economic shock that has followed in its wake have taken a disproportionate toll on some immigrant communities and the economically disadvantaged, many of whom live in dense and crowded urban districts.

“The way that this crisis has hit our society has a lot to do with socio-economic conditions and the underlying public health situation,” says Sandra Oliveira e Costa, Research Fellow at Nordregio. “This is not necessarily linked directly to the immigrant population, but rather to the type of jobs people have and if they’ve been able to follow the imposed restrictions. Many people have had to continue to go to work, while others have been working from the safety of their homes.”

Oliveira e Costa is one of the researchers behind Long-term planning for inclusive cities, a project studying how Nordic countries use urban planning to deal with segregation issues and create more inclusive cities. Like Weber, she calls for further research into the linkages between urban structure, housing typologies and the availability of public space and the spread of the pandemic, focusing especially on areas that are particularly affected by socio-economic inequality.

“The COVID19 pandemic has yet again made us aware of how differently people are impacted by various events in our society, depending on their economic means and social background,” says Oliveira e Costa. “The task at hand is to achieve the green transition and create sustainable cities without leaving anyone behind or putting people’s health at risk.”

Urban accessibility for healthy and active ageing

Elderly, especially those with underlying health problems, are at much higher risk for severe illness or death from COVID19 than the remaining population. Nordregio is a partner in Adapting European Cities to Population Ageing, a project studying the measures taken by European cities to better meet the needs of the growing population of elderly. In 2018, nearly one fifth of the EU population was aged 65 or more, and by 2030, this figure is projected to increase to 30 per cent.

“Due to this demographic development, the notion of age-friendly cities has been gaining ground on the policy agenda and in city planning for several years,” says Mats Stjernberg, Senior Research Fellow at Nordregio. “An age-friendly city is a place where people of all ages can live a decent life and where infrastructure and services, such as public spaces and public transport, are adapted to the needs of older people.”

The main objective of the age-friendly city is to promote an active, social and healthy lifestyle throughout life. The pandemic, says Stjernberg, has made this more relevant than ever.

“Older people have been more severely affected, especially those in poor health. This underlines the value of active ageing, as it allows people to remain as healthy as possible for as long as possible. And the healthier our seniors, the better we can deal with future pandemics. COVID19 has shown us that there’s considerable room for improvement in the way in which we care for our elderly.”

Shorter and more transparent food supply chains

One of the first reactions to the COVID19 restrictions and lockdowns in the Nordic countries was hoarding of food and other necessities. While most supply chains have remained intact throughout the pandemic, this initial response is symbolic for the concern for food security in times of crisis.

“Food production can be at risk for several reasons, such as disruptions in the supply chain, or, as we’ve seen during the corona crisis, due to restricted mobility of seasonal workers,” says Senior Research Fellow Luciane Aguiar Borges. “The pandemic shows us how privileged we are on a daily basis but it also reveals the vulnerability of the global food system.”

Borges represents Nordregio in SiEUGreen, a European-Chinese collaborative project on the potential of urban agriculture, both in terms of food production and as a means to increase the circularity of resources. The project looks into different technologies to produce food in cities, such as aquaponics and hydroponics, as well as the potential of large greenhouses in peri-urban areas producing food and fresh vegetables for the population in larger cities.

“Up until now, food security has mainly been addressed in terms of production, focusing on how we need to produce more food to meet the growing demand,” Borges explains. “However, we also need further research to ensure better use of our resources and reduce food waste throughout the entire food value chain. One-third of all food produced goes to waste, which is very unsustainable.”

Borges describes the corona crisis as a window of opportunity for urban planners.

“This is an opportunity to think more carefully about how we’ve been designing our cities and start paying more attention to the possibilities of integrating local food production and edible public spaces into urban planning and design. Urban agriculture is one way of creating shorter and more transparent food supply chains, which would increase our resilience to future crises.”

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