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Cities / Access to nature

Cities must protect access to nature for immediate resilience and beyond

By Andrew Sansom 01 May 2020 0

In a new study, researchers from Stockholm Resilience Centre and colleagues argue that ensuring nature access for the public should be a fundamental strategy of cities when coping with the 2020 coronavirus pandemic and to ensure both short- and long-term resilience.

Their central reason is because contact with nature offers a way to deal with and counteract stressors of everyday life, while still allowing for social distancing. Provided people are allowed outdoors, of course.

In a paper, published in Landscape and Urban Planning, the researchers discuss the role urban green recreational areas can play in these testing times. The authors propose that cities around the world need to accept crises as a new reality and finding ways to function during these disturbances. In this new situation, maintaining or increasing space for nature in cities and keeping it accessible to the public, should be part of the sustainability agenda, they insist. Simultaneously, cities need to strive towards achieving SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing) and SDG 11 (sustainable and resilient cities).

Although increased greenery in cities will not happen during the current crisis, the authors believe it can provide insights for future planning. That means dealing with two things: spatial development and property-rights arrangements.

The first refers to the need to allocate sufficient space for nature in cities, and the authors argue that current extreme urban densities are not conducive to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 while adhering to social distancing rules. But property-rights arrangements are equally important to consider.

Resilience in the short and long term

The paper points to the contrasting examples of New York and Detroit in reacting to different crises, and explain how access to nature is a critical resilience strategy in both the short and the long term.

Says the paper: “New York City, which was the first major epicentre of the US coronavirus outbreak, is a telling example of a city that is losing public space at a grand scale. With increasing fear of terrorism after 9/11, many places where people formerly could relax from stress and annoyance have been eradicated. Not only has an increased fear of terrorism acted as a vindication for imposing restrictions on the use of public sidewalks and plazas but also in the use of natural habitats, such as pocket parks.”

During the pandemic, social distancing has so far been the imperative concern for most cities, say the researchers, but they also point to a potential looming threat that might follow in the wake of pandemics: cuts in food supply chains.

They go on to cite the positive example of Detroit, where community gardens have been used in past recessions to supplement unemployed workers and their families with food, and create new jobs.

The authors conclude: “In the short term, [access to nature] provides much-needed buffering capacity during the ongoing pandemic for maintaining mental and physical health, social relationships and communion with the natural world. At the same time, how space and property rights are arranged to ensure access to urban nature will be of direct importance for building general urban resilience in the long term.”

Social distancing study

In related news, researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and University of Gävle are to collect data to gain a better understanding of how different urban environments are used in times of crises.

The project is part of an extensive effort to collect data that can improve future urban planning.

Stephan Barthel, project leader and centre researcher, said: “The current situation is in many ways unprecedented. It is an extremely difficult situation but also one we can learn a lot from.”

The analysis will be based on an anonymous online survey. “We are looking for population patterns, not the behaviour of individuals,” he said.

The project is a spin-off from research in 2015 when inhabitants of Stockholm were asked to map their favourite areas of the city. Although Stockholm represents a particularly interesting case study for the current project, there are no limitations as to where in Sweden the data can be retrieved.

“Stockholm has one of the world’s highest number of inhabitants living alone,” adds Barthel. “This would imply that there is a higher need to interact and move about.”

The survey, which is only available in Swedish, is available here.

Organisations involved