The role of public space during the COVID-19 pandemic: Perspectives from the HEAL team 

Parks, trails, beaches, pathways, patios, plazas, sidewalks are well-recognized contributors to positive health and wellbeing. These spaces, as part of the public realm, have become even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic. This virus has necessitated the closure of many workplaces, entertainment venues, and retail locations, the implementation of physical distancing protocols, and serious reflection on the allocations of public space to walking and cycling.  

For many, these public spaces are the last outdoor refugee to get exercise and make limited social contact. Unfortunately, in many communities there is too little public space to accommodate this increase in demand for walking and cycling, leading to many local governments either finding ways to create more space, or more often restricting access to these spaces. 

Alexander Wray, John Fleming, and Dr. Jason Gilliland recently shared their thoughts on how the pandemic has affected the public realm in a commentary piece in the Cities & Health special issue on COVID-19. They provide a cross-cutting analysis of local government responses to the pandemic, categorizing them as a mix of three actions: 

  1. Restricting behaviour in the public realm through lockdowns, curfews, and ticketing those who violate physical distancing restrictions. 
  1. Investing in new or redesigned infrastructure such as providing more open space, widened sidewalks, or protected bike lanes to help people maintain recommended separation distances. 
  1. Educating people about public space and physical distancing through signage and non-punitive measures. 

They hypothesize the most successful communities in overcoming this pandemic, whilst avoiding long-term effects on health and wellbeing, will be those that sought to balance their actions more towards investment and education, rather than punitive restrictions. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is noa crisis of public order, rather it is a crisis of environmental justice and equity in the public realm. This pandemic has exposed in many cities a lack of space in the public realm for people, and in turn, many urban health inequities and insecurities that will continue to be exacerbated during future pandemics, heat waves, and eventual climate-based migration. It has also revealed the disproportionate allocation of space to automobiles within transportation corridors, largely at the expense of quality cycling and pedestrian infrastructure that support health and wellbeing. Cities that adopt more forward-looking and permanent changes to their public realm will likely be more resilient to future public health emergencies. 

You can read the full commentary for free, here:

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