The highly-contagious pandemic and the restrictions implemented to face it during the last three months have reminded us of the importance of public space for urban life and, once again, the fact that these spaces are not equally designed and distributed throughout the city. COVID-19 has exposed the disparities experienced by the most impoverished and most marginalised sectors of urban populations in terms of the availability of green and public spaces, housing standards and the availability of services such as health care or food supply.
In London, a lockdown was implemented to stop the spread of the virus. We were instructed to stay home and only go out for essential journeys (ideally walking or cycling) and physical exercise, always keeping two metres distance from others. However, there is a significant proportion of Londoners living in inadequate, overcrowded and unsafe homes. On top of that, there are 170,068 homeless people (Shelter, 2019) who have no home to stay in at all. It is in these cases that the provision of quality public spaces and infrastructure is critical to enable citizens to comply with policies of social distance and confinement, without these measures frustrating the purpose of maintaining their health, safety and well-being.
Pavement widths in London/Esri-UK
A recent spatial analysis by Esri UK (2020) demonstrates that most pavements in London are not wide enough for pedestrians to follow the government’s guidelines for social distancing. Further, it can be seen in the image that adequate pavements are concentrated in certain areas revealing ‘a tale of two cities’. On the same note, the map Lives on the line (2012), created by researcher Dr James Cheshire (UCL), displays how life expectancy varies according to the tube stations around where children are born. The disparities represented on the map are striking. For example, there is a 10-year (plus) difference in life expectancy between those born around some overground stations such as Whitechapel (77) and others such as Green Park (89) in Mayfair. The physical conditions of public infrastructure around these stations are different. Comparing these two cases, around Whitechapel, buildings are less maintained and made of lower quality; streets are narrower, and footpaths seem to have disappeared; cycling infrastructure is almost non-existent; green areas (if any) have been replaced by waste sites; and insecurity is evident with the appearance of fences, vandalism and abandonment of public space in general. These are all shared characteristics between those tube stations that informed lower life expectancy values, which proves there is a clear link between deprivation and life expectancy, reflecting the structural discrimination and spatial exclusion within the current urban planning system.
Justin Setterfield/ Getty Images
In this context, the following question arises. How can the city’s most vulnerable population be expected to stay healthy (physically and mentally) while respecting health measures and policies if the public space available to them does not allow them to do so?
This sector of the population does not have footpaths wide enough to maintain two metres distance when walking or to allow safe queuing to access the few opened shops. Neither does this sector of the population have cycle paths suitable for people to use the bicycle as an alternative mode to public transport. They do not have open and public spaces to exercise, breathe clean air and relax outside their densely-populated and limited-space homes.
As a result, as we are sadly seeing, the current restrictions have unequal impacts, not only on people’s living conditions during quarantine but also on how exposed they are to the transmission of COVID-19.
This pandemic requires us to have a collective reflection about the planning system, whose fragility and unsustainability has contributed to what many are observing to be the segregation and deprivation of our communities and citizens.
With this knowledge, it’s now more essential than ever that planners and decision-makers design and implement urban projects that improve the quality of public space in the city for everyone – prioritising the most vulnerable and disadvantaged areas. An urban design that results in exclusion and injustice should never be accepted and approved. The current situation offers a window of opportunity to restructure planning processes and focus investment on the implementation of the urgent, radical and permanent measures needed to develop fairer and more sustainable cities for all.
Esri UK (2020) ‘GB Pavement Width Indicator’.
Available at: https://bit.ly/3gWA8Sp (accessed: 02 June 2020)
Cheshire, J. (2012). ‘Lives on the Line: Mapping Life Expectancy Along the London Tube Network’. Environment and Planning A. 44 (7)
Shelter (2019) 280,000 people in England are homeless, with thousands more at risk.
Available at:https://bit.ly/3dBVwdt (accessed: 14 May 2020)