Open spaces and the pandemic

When cities in Europe emerged from stringent lockdown, overnight traffic barriers came up for cars on roads and cycle pathways were created. From London to Paris to Milan, bicycles became the promoted and preferred mode of travel. These ‘Corona Cycleways’ became the lifeline for people as they returned to work.

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In these times of social distancing, as people are wary of public transport and more conscious of health, the cycle becomes a means for both. In India too, as per newspaper reports the sales of cycles have sky rocketed. India is the world’s second largest producer of cycles and the industry is expected to grow at 15-20% as per the All India Cycle Manufacturers Association.

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When Lodhi Garden, a famous park in the heart of Delhi re-opened for restricted hours after the long lockdown, it was overwhelmed with walkers and joggers. For people, slowly emerging from a lockdown, it provides a space where they can breathe fresh air, walk around, play, walk their pet or simply sit on a bench to see other people go by.

Whether it is cycling or visiting parks and other open spaces – these spaces have again begun to occupy centre-stage in the lives of the common people. With no vaccine or cure currently in sight for the pandemic, physical space is the mechanism to fight, prevent, and control the spread. In urban areas open spaces become the arena for life outside home, while providing the intrinsic benefits these places offer.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought focus back on the importance of open spaces. Pandemics have shaped city planning for centuries. The nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries saw devastating outbreaks of disease across Europe. The London sewage system, that still serves the city, was revamped to combat cholera. Alongside, planners began to include green spaces in residential areas for health and recreational reasons. Parks became integral to urban design. New York’s famous Central Park, built in 1857 still functions as a lung to the megacity. Two years after the bubonic plague hit Bombay in 1898, the authorities moved to decongest the overcrowded old town through slum-clearance and provision of housing to the poor.

In our cities, wherever we live, if we look around there would be some park, some open spaces that we have used after the lockdown. Many people have started cycling or running regularly on city roads. As we look towards a future with the pandemic lingering around, the importance of reimagining our cities with more open public spaces is imperative. Over time, our urban areas have grown without adequate priority to open spaces. The importance of designing and maintaining open spaces has been overlooked for other needs, like office space and residential areas.

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With work from home becoming a reality and something that is here to stay, we can think of redrawing our cities with more open spaces and wherever needed planning for shorter commutes for people that need to go for work. A first step could be creating more cycling zones and lanes in our cities to encourage people to cycle in safe environments. Widening of pavements to improve the pedestrian experience could also help people maintain social distance. Banning vehicular traffic on stretches or for time periods could be a beginning to encourage people to get around in healthier ways.

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As we stand at the cusp of the emergence of a different world in the era post the advent of COVID-19, there exists an opportunity to bring the importance of open spaces back to the forefront of how we plan our living conditions in our cities. Also, as users of the existing open spaces in our communities we should treat them with care, and follow all health protocols for our collective safety. City dwellers and cities have to become pandemic resilient in the future.  

Published in Hindi in Dainik Bhaskar on 23/09/2020

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