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In the Green of Health
Our resilience and recovery depend on green open spaces. Sheeba Amir explains why

Confinement and social distancing are words that have become a constant for us in the past few months, attributed to the biggest health crisis of our time: Covid-19. An eerie emptiness has engulfed cities, with lockdowns leading to deserted streets and public spaces. Social distancing – a collective activity now – has come to be accepted as one of the crucial measures to reduce virus transmission, which is expected to remain in practice for an extended period. All along, cities around the world have been innovating through their public spaces to provide a safe environment for the people. Chalk circles of Domino Park in Brooklyn (circles painted on the ground, six feet apart to encourage social distancing), the StoDistante installation (painted square in a grid of 1.8 metres in Piazza Giotto to maintain social distancing) in the Italian town of Vicchio, the Serres Separees (private greenhouse chambers for a safe dining experience) at Mediamatic ETEN restaurant in Amsterdam all exhibit innovative use of space while maintaining social distancing.

While we are trying to interpret the new normal, the rules of the game defining the relationship between people and space have already changed. There is a debate among designers whether the pandemic will change how we design and perceive spaces to incorporate the new learnings. Several designers have come up with new spatial concepts to implement during and post-pandemic: Parc de la Distance by Studio Precht and the Slow Streets Program by the city of Oakland are two such examples. Though we are still unsure of how long the impact of the pandemic will be felt and what the extent of the transformation will be, what is worth focusing on is the notion of public health, nature and the built environment.

The benefits of green open spaces on human health have been recognised and appreciated by medical experts and city planners. The evolution of large-scale public parks and the phenomenon of the suburbs are a testament of the link between health, wellbeing and green open spaces. This relationship between people and nature in contemporary times is increasingly being investigated by researchers in an effort to create healthy and healing environments by

The city of Leuven and its green-blue network

harmonising built design and public health. The human engagement with nature enhances our learning and creative capacities. In a report by the World Health Organisation (2017), green open spaces have been defined as necessary elements for sustainable and liveable cities, for their benefits on physical and mental wellbeing based on a large body of academic research. These spaces provide psychological relaxation, stress relief and an escape from polluted (air, noise) urban environments.

Chris Trott, of Foster and Partners, in his article titled Biophilia in Design (www. fosterandpartners.com) emphasises the need to incorporate biophilic elements in our building design for better human health and wellbeing, based on his belief of an instinctive humannature connection. More and more designers are bringing nature indoors or creating green outdoor spaces as important programming elements in offices and educational institutions for better creativity and output.

As the validation for green open spaces is gaining prominence, their unequal distribution in cities is also becoming apparent. The pandemic has exposed the socioeconomic and environmental inequalities of our cities

To manage physical and mental health, outdoor exercise was greatly encouraged in most cities throughout the lockdown while other activities like shopping, eating out were still strongly restricted. Physical distancing and limited human interaction as experienced during the pandemic have a direct implication on human health, worsening illnesses like dementia, heart diseases and mental health concerns. Green, open spaces of cities proved most beneficial in keeping people physically and mentally healthy. However, the role of green public spaces is not only limited to physical exercise and routine strolls. Such spaces allow us to establish visual contact and access a place collectively while maintaining social distancing norms. These areas provide a platform for community engagement and social cohesion crucial for recovery due to their flexibility and multi-functional nature.

As the validation for green open spaces is gaining prominence, their unequal distribution in cities is also becoming apparent. The pandemic has exposed the socio-economic and environmental inequalities of our cities. Observations from cities all over the world indicate how the dense minority neighbourhoods with low income populations have been hit harder. Though there are multiple reasons for this impact, lack of public infrastructure like urban parks, playgrounds and walkable environments is a significant factor. Our urban policies over the decades have resulted in the unequal distribution of densities and public facilities. Though the green open spaces are beneficial for everyone, they can be exceptionally valuable for socially disadvantaged groups and communities, which have the least access to good quality private open spaces. For futureresilient cities, we need to organise the densities of our cities smartly with equal access to green infrastructure for all citizens. A ‘green city’ with the provision of open spaces to only a limited privileged class will only create ‘showpiece pockets’ in the urban fabric.

The pandemic is not only a health crisis but also an urban crisis, inviting us to rethink our ideas of a resilient and liveable city and reassess traditional approaches of planning and design. Learnings from the past have taught us that a crisis can be turned into an opportunity only if we embrace it and work towards building better. Past health crises have resulted in pushing us for revolutionary measures in urban infrastructure and planning. We are still in an experiential stage, where we need to observe more to gain clarity on the transformed relation between people and space. However, what is clear at this point is the role of green open spaces as critical infrastructure towards health, resilience and the liveability of our cities.

The Story of Leuven

Leuven is a historical town in Belgium, home to one of the oldest and most innovative European

 Abdij Van Park, an example of built and natural heritage

Photo Credit: SALMA BEGUM

 

Top: Students occupying the front lawns of a castle in Arenberg Campus, KU Leuven
Bottom: Sluispark along the edge of the River Dyle provides nature-oriented space for all age groups

universities (KU Leuven) and headquarters of the world’s largest brewer (AB InBev). Once an important industrial town, Leuven is now wellknown for its contribution in the field of research and innovation (winner of European capital of innovation 2020). Along with a large student population (approx. 45% of total population), Leuven also attracts a lot of tourists, with its art, culture and architectural heritage. As one of the greenest cities of Europe, Leuven won the European Green Leaf award in 2018. The city has great bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure with dedicated car free zones, attractive public space and magnificent heritage structures.

Leuven has a network of green open spaces, which includes small municipal parks, river terraces, provincial parks and larger woods or forest areas at the edge of the city. The River Dyle runs through the city as an ecological corridor connecting various green spaces as anchor points, which provide breathing space for the city. There are city parks of different scales and nature for all age groups, some of them with dedicated activity areas designed for children. The city is home to one of the oldest botanical gardens in Belgium, built in 1738 by KU Leuven. All around the edge of the city there are large provincial parks like Abdij Van Park that combine built and natural heritage.

Green, open spaces in Leuven provided much respite to the citizens during and postlockdown, as places for fresh air, outdoor exercise and much-needed nature-human interaction while maintaining social distancing. When the lockdown was announced, a lot of students were preparing for their exams. With the libraries and study rooms shut, it must have been a rather difficult environment to concentrate. The green spaces around the campus and student residences proved a blessing in such times. It was possible to take a break in the common lawns, get some exercise in the football field and go for a run in one of the nearby parks. All the municipal and provincial parks are very well accessible by public transport or by bike. Supervision and monitoring were in place initially to maintain safety measures, which were later relaxed.

The efforts and planning of the city of Leuven are also important in this narrative for acknowledging the role of green, open spaces towards the resilience of the city and working to achieve it. The city has recognised the importance of it green-blue infrastructure and worked to integrate it well through programmes like ‘Leuven aan de Dijle’ (Leuven on the Dyle), which aims to bring the river back to the city and integrate it within the urban development in the form of accessible quality spaces for its citizens.

Equal distribution and good accessibility of these spaces as imagined by city developers at various stages of development, proved highly beneficial during the pandemic. Leuven is an example of how well designed and planned green spaces are crucial for the resilience of the cities and help us in adapting to the risks of disasters like the coronavirus. The city also launched the campaign ‘vakantie in eigen stad’ (vacation in your own city) for the summer of 2020 to discourage people to travel out of town, in order to contain the virus. Various small-scale activities like camping, movie screenings, exhibitions and theatre performances were planned by the city and various organisations at open spaces to avoid overcrowding in one location. With events like ‘Boost je veerkracht’ (boost your resilience) to manage mental stress during the corona pandemic, the city has organised a series of activities like mindful walks and trips through nature-rich areas. Green spaces of Leuven were crucial in organising these events for their flexibility and multi-functionality while maintaining safety guidelines. Additional efforts like creating car-free zones by diverting the vehicular traffic to reclaim more space through events like ‘Autovrije zondag’- (car free Sunday) helped in boosting safety and enhancing public activities.

The example of Leuven shows us why it is crucial to systemically build a network of green spaces with a long-term vision by incorporating

 

Left: Weekly market extended to the roads to maintain social distancing on a car-free day in Leuven
Right: Booklet and official website page of city of Leuven for information on activities within Leuven during Covid-19

 

them in local development agendas and city vision plans, to build health and resilience.

Future of green public spaces

As we walk towards recovery, what are the learnings that we take with us for a more just, equitable and resilient future? The lesson is that for resilient and healthy cities, a multi-disciplinary approach is required. The city administrations need to work in close collaboration with medical health, environmental and social science and urban experts, to understand the need of the citizens and their relationship with space. Contemporary concepts of urbanism like ‘landscape urbanism’, ‘ecological urbanism’ reflect on how a nature/ landscape-based framework can guide us towards resilient urban growth. Conceptualisation of future green spaces in a ‘continuous productive urban landscape’, as socially and ecologically productive space could be an answer to a self-sufficient and sustainable city. Few concepts like ‘15-minute city’ (compact high-density city model with everything accessible within a 15-minute commute), which has so far been considered desirable because of higher density and lower energy footprint provision, might find itself at conflict with the 1.5 metre city (social distancing desirable to lower the vulnerability and risk from the virus). However, what we need is not drastic alterations but comprehensive improved and sustainable solutions.

The pandemic reflects hope, solidarity and the courage of our society that has emerged through suffering in the past, which will help us move towards recovery and survival. The clarity and unimaginable positive changes that awareness and learnings bring post-disaster will pave the way for a resilient, fair and equitable future of our cities. This is also an invitation for us to rethink the role of accessible and inclusive quality green open public spaces. There is a need to build a strong awareness of the role of green open spaces beyond their ecological functions in defining the social and physical health of the cities