Epidemic takeaways: (Green) public space

The thoughts of Maja Simoneti on green public space during the coronavirus epidemic, originally published 6 April 2020.

“Please practice social distancing. Help keeping the park open!” This was how a New Yorker warned fellow citizens last week in front of one of the city’s parks to make people comply with the special conditions for the use of public space during the COVID-19 epidemic. Many people around the world are really upset because the authorities closed the parks and restricted the use of public spaces. This is not surprising. The coronavirus epidemic made going to the park something everybody needs. The epidemic has locked us down in our homes and increased our awareness of how important green and other public spaces are for our well-being. We need to remember this because it can contribute to the planning and management of public spaces in the future.

Three weeks ago, when schools, kindergartens and offices closed, life in Slovenia slowed down and shrunk to the size of our homes. Ever since there has been a debate about how and where we are allowed to be outside. Narrowing down our living space exclusively, or predominantly, to home is stressful. In general, our apartments are not suitable for spending too much time in, living and working. Just think how precious your own room is these days and how fortunate are those who have an apartment with a balcony or even a garden! Even more than the physical shortcomings of our homes, the lack of privacy, company and opportunities for recreation are to blame for the stress. We normally get all this in public open space, in a park and other public areas. We meet some of our essential needs in public open space. The use of public space provides us with extremely important feelings of freedom, individuality and connection to other people. Public open spaces are as well available to everyone under the same conditions free of charge and are therefore very important for social equality.

 … our apartments are not really suitable to spend too much time in…

According to the World Health Organization, public open space, and especially green public space, is key to public health. Doctors warn that we need regular outdoor exercise for good mental and physical health. Due to the health benefits of green and public space, both the planning and maintenance of public green space are important. In some countries, doctors may prescribe walking to their patients, and some doctors walk with their patients in an organized manner. Therefore, various organizations also invite people to go to parks and nearby nature during the epidemic, taking into account the rule of social distancing. All this shows that green public space is a very important infrastructure of our settlements and that its planning is one of the central tasks of urban planning for healthy living.

One of the measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is to ensure a safe distance between users in public space. Healthcare organizations agree that we are safe from infection if we are at least six feet (6 feet) or just under two meters (1.8 meters) away from others. The authorities are clear that in the event of a rapid increase in the number of infected people, movement in public space will have to be further restricted and controls on compliance with the distancing rules will have to be tightened. Parks have been closed in Italy and Spain. This puts the residents in distress, especially the children. The possibility of going outside means much more to us now than it did before the epidemic. Feelings of distress due to the ban can be similar to those that overwhelm a person when they learn they need to quit smoking or some other type of addiction. The discomfort is even worse, as the decision that we are not allowed outside does not depend on us.

… public open space, and especially green public space, is key to public health …

The walk to the park is the path to physical and mental fitness. During an epidemic, we need both even more than usual. The World Health Organization specifically warns that prolonged periods of strict quarantine can be dangerous for mental health. The unpredictability of the situation, the fact that we cannot imagine when the problems will end and how we will live after it, cause additional distress. Exercise outdoors and even just watching other people and contact with nature can effectively help us overcome feelings of anxiety. That is why people need to move outdoors even more during the time of social isolation.

Slovenian government started implementing protective measures in mid-March, and we have been locked down since 17 March. At the end of the month, the Government of the Republic of Slovenia adopted a decree on the temporary ban on movement and gathering in public places and public areas and determined which tasks justify movement and staying in public space while maintaining a safe distance. The decree states that “access to public parks and other walking areas is allowed only in the municipality of permanent or temporary residence”, and gives the authority to determine special conditions for the use of public spaces to municipalities or mayors.

The very preparation of the decree on the ban on movement in public space has raised a number of questions in the media and in social media. What is public space? Which areas in our settlements are public? Are we allowed to cross the fields to get to the nearby forest? Who will control how we keep the safe distance and control if we are in the municipality of our residence? Suddenly, we find ourselves in a situation where everyone, residents, media and politics are very interested in public open space. This interest could be a valuable side effect of the epidemic if it would be translated to spatial planning and management of public open space.

Are we allowed to cross the fields to get to the nearby forest?

Management of green and other public open spaces is poorly regulated in Slovenia. After the country declared independence, the state established a new legal framework for the implementation of communal services and defined management of public green areas as a public communal service “Management and cleaning of public spaces”. This affected the former organization of the service and the implementation of working tasks in practice. Above all, it interrupted the continuity of professionally qualified management of green and other public spaces in all action phases from planning to design, construction, maintenance and use.

The management of public space is divided between different public services, which are not necessarily connected and coordinated. Municipalities in Slovenia do not have serious professional park services, there are no tree nurseries in the country, no expertise is required to work with trees. Most municipalities have not planned and designed a complex new park area for decades. There is no data base of the quantity and quality of green public space for Slovenian settlements today. Management (and cleaning) of public space is a mandatory local public service by the environment protection law. However, the ministry has adopted no regulations or recommendations for its implementation that would guide municipalities on how to take care of public green space. The consequence of this is that urban planners and landscape architects report that the quality of management of green and other public space vary greatly between settlements and municipalities in the country.

If ever, then in the past few weeks of the epidemic, we all became well aware of two things: that we urgently need well planned and managed public spaces and parks, and that municipalities need the professional support and cooperation of the national level to be able to effectively contribute to public health.

Title photo: Maja Simoneti, using graphics from DaytonHikers.Org, St Louis County Park, San José parks, whyy.org, Alameda County in San Rafael CA

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