The Importance of Public Space in the Recovery

Not being able to “go out” when we like is very stressful.   The classic view is that, under stress, men respond with “fight or flight,” i.e. they become aggressive or leave the scene, whereas women are more prone to “tend and befriend,”. A new study suggests that acute stress may actually lead to greater cooperative, social, and friendly behaviour, even in men! This more positive and social response could help explain the human connection that happens during times of crises, a connection that may be responsible, at least in part, for our collective survival as a species.[1]

One reason why stress may lead to cooperative behaviour is our profound need for social connection. Human beings are fundamentally social animals and it is the protective nature of our social relationships that has allowed our species to thrive.

It’s so easy to take public space for granted. It’s all around us, and we get used to using  it every day to commute, to do our errands, to meet friends, family, neighbours and strangers. But like so many things, we only really appreciate the full value of public space when it has been taken away from us.

They provide people many opportunities to come together and engage with the community. If public spaces are successful, they are inclusive of the diversity of groups present in our cities and create a social space for everyone in the society to participate in.

According to CABE, it is estimated that each year well over half the UK population – some 33 million people – make more than 2.5billion visits to urban green spaces alone. Not surprisingly, people become attached to these parks, gardens and other open places, and appreciate them for what they offer culturally, socially and personally.  They provide people many opportunities to come together and engage with the community. If public spaces are successful they are inclusive of the diversity of groups present in our cities and create a social space for everyone in the society to participate in.

As the COVID-19 pandemic proceeds, public life has had to shrink to ensure that the virus ceases to spread through our communities. We all must practice “social distancing” to protect the people around us, and that means that although we will miss them dearly, our parks, squares, markets, streets, and other public spaces must remain dormant for now. Waiting for better times when, like the spring, everything will burst back into life.

But times like this are also important moments of reflection. What value does public space offer in a quarantine situation?  For one thing, it is vital to ensuring that all of us weather disasters well, and even though we cannot gather in person during this crisis, you can already see the creative local responses taking shape around the world, fuelled by social capital that has built up over time. 

However, like a forest fire that decimates everything, new life will emerge, although it seems a long way off now.  This is why public space must play a key role as we recover from this pandemic. We have a duty to rebuild our communities to be more resilient by investing in welcoming, lively, meaningful public spaces for all

So, when you begin your recovery planning, and I know many people are starting to think about that already, do take a long look at your public spaces and the public realm as a whole. Think about how they function and how you can programme events outside.  Social distancing is going to be ingrained in our psyche for a long time.  I had no idea, when I wrote my last blog about Parklets, that the idea might become some important in the coming months!


[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-stress-of-disaster-brings-people-together/

1 thought on “The Importance of Public Space in the Recovery

  • What purpose will public spaces serve in the era of social distancing. Until we know what measures will still be enforced it is hard to know for sure but we can make some assumptions. Firstly they will be popular as people strive for a sense of normality, especially with families. Secondly they will need to offer a minimum opportunity for social distancing. So seating will need to change as well as the creation of zones for people to inhabit. Some sort of demarcation will be essential as well as the opportunity to use these to create a more fun, fulfilling and inspiring place. As Martin said life will spring forth and it is our job to make sure it is more creative and inspiring.

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