We live in uncertain and unsettling times. Just as the debate and discussion around the climate crisis started to crystallise into calls for clear action within this decade, we now find ourselves facing the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic.
Most of us living in near lock-down are learning to accept and work within a ‘new normal’. Listening to often heartbreaking stories of people who are suffering from the impacts of COVID-19, I have struggled with conversations on the climate crisis and the design of liveable towns and cities.
I have, like many others, wondered if this really is the right time to be having these debates. But can we really disassociate the public health crisis we face now from an ongoing environmental one?
This crisis further exacerbates social inequalities
Our towns and cities should provide healthier environments for everyone to live, work, rest and play. But what the pandemic has highlighted to me is that in times of crisis, the inequalities inherent and ingrained in so much that we take for granted, come right to the fore.
The impact of COVID-19 – whether it is on people worrying about how to make ends meet, people with underlying health conditions or disabilities, people who haven’t got the luxury to stop and reflect – are the greatest on the most vulnerable in society.
Just as the impacts we see from the climate crisis. But what this crisis has also highlighted is that now, more than ever, it is the resilience shown by people, whole communities coming together that embody the strength of a neighbourhood, a town, a city.
For me, it is knowing that there are amazing people providing their support – food, medicine and good cheer – to my parents in India, that help to stem the rising panic when I think of their health and wellbeing.
Over the past couple of weeks, despite the social distancing, I have somehow got to know my neighbours better. Shopping for each other, sharing stories, leaving notes and messages of comfort – I have come to realise that what is important in improving quality of life within our neighbourhoods seems to be similar to what becomes vital during global emergencies like the one we’re living through now.
Creating resilient communities
I was reminded by my friend last week about the story of Christchurch’s response to the devastating earthquake in 2011, and it has been on my mind a lot since then.
The city's then newly installed mayor, Lianne Dalziel, talked about ushering in a new era of governance that focused on empowering community organisations to do things for themselves. "Building a resilient city starts at the grassroots, so that bottom-up meets top-down halfway," she wrote.
Policy on climate and urban planning needs to change post-COVID
So, maybe this is the right time to think about what kind of world we would like to see in the future.
One where through densification and mixing different land uses, we can meet most of our daily needs.
One where we can shop locally, walk or cycle to our schools, parks, health and community centres within 20 minutes with public transport prioritized for longer trips.
The 20-minute neighbourhood as an idea has been promoted by many in sustainable urban design. It is also a core tenet of Sustrans and our thinking on how to make places better for people.
Looking to the future
At the moment, many conversations with my six-year-old begin with, ‘After the virus is over...’
My nine-year son also wants to know if ‘going back to normal’ could mean being still being able to cycle on the roads like he is able to do now.
When we are ready to look to the future, we need to acknowledge that many parts of the ‘normal’ that we long for were broken. We should be ready to have the collective conversation on how going back to status quo is impossible and we will experience a fundamental shift to a new world. And I believe that it will be a kinder, gentler and fairer world that will help to build a more resilient one.
Policymakers, political leaders, professionals, businesses, communities coming together in a far more positive way to ensure a collaborative approach to our response in dealing with health and economic impacts of COVID-19 as well as the climate emergency.
There are tough times ahead and the only way that we can collectively get through these will be to hold on to what continues to give us strength right now.
A glimpse into a world with cleaner air, with birdsong, but most important of all, the human connections that are so vital and that keep us all moving forward.
To read more about what Sustrans is doing to support people during the current coronavirus outbreak click here
Daisy Narayanan, Director of Urbanism at Sustrans, is currently on a one-year secondment to the City of Edinburgh Council as lead officer on the Central Edinburgh Transformation project. She has a wealth of experience in the placemaking, planning and transport sectors gained through the public and private sectors.
This article was originally published on Architecture & Design Scotland.
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