Breathing Space – How coronavirus may change the shape of our cities

Published by: at 1st April 2020

Filed under: Uncategorised


The health of the nation is rarely out of the news and never more so than today. The evidence is unequivocal – peoples’ health and wellbeing and the persistence of health inequalities can be addressed by providing good quality and local green spaces. In fact, much of the history of landscape architecture can be traced back to the need to create places that were beneficial for peoples’ health and wellbeing.

Urban green space, such as parks, playgrounds, and residential greenery, can promote mental and physical health and reduce morbidity and mortality in urban residents by providing psychological relaxation and stress alleviation, stimulating social cohesion, supporting physical activity, and reducing exposure to air pollutants, noise and excessive heat.

Diseases shape cities

COVID-19 is joining a long list of infectious diseases like Spanish Flu in 1918, or Ebola Virus Disease in 2014 likely to have an enduring mark on urban planning and urban spaces. Throughout history diseases have shaped cities as epidemics lead to significant change in planning and development of important infrastructure. London’s cholera epidemic in 1846–60 led to a modern sewerage system and Victoria Embankment, an iconic feature of London’s public realm.

Densification v disaggregation

One of the most difficult questions we, as designers of cities and suburbs, have to face is the realisation of the tension between creating dense and efficient cities which is seen as essential to improving environmental sustainability and disaggregation, the separating out of populations, which is one of the key tools currently being use to combat infection.

When planning cities, we need to balance the needs of public health with the demands of the climate and biodiversity emergency, and this could be difficult.

Breathing space

There will be a renewed focus on finding design solutions that create breathing spaces in cities to enable people to socialise without being packed “sardine-like” into compressed public realm, cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs. Given the high cost of land in city centre, success may depend on significant land economic reforms as well.

At this point of the current coronavirus crisis, it has become apparent that many city dwellers have become prisoners in the own homes with no access to views of any green space and nature, emphasising the paucity of parks in many of our cities. However, in cities where there are some great parks, residents have flooded out of the homes to take advantage of the improved spring weather, in turn, causing social distancing issues. Is this also exacerbated by the low density of green space? These are the questions and issues we will have to address in the months and years to come.

We don’t yet know the answers, but what is certain things have to and will change. “City residents are becoming aware of desires that they didn’t realise they had before,” said Richard Sennett, a professor of urban studies at MIT and senior adviser to the UN on its climate change and cities programme.

Perhaps for the first-time people have noticed bird song, spring blossom and the benefit of a regular walk in the local park?

Jane Findlay

31 March 2020