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10/06/2020

What the coronavirus pandemic can teach us about planning for healthy places

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Lockdown offers a chance to rethink the way we plan our streets and neighbourhoods - and to make them much healthier places, argues Sarah Smith

Whilst the coronavirus pandemic has brought a lot of tragedy, it also brings the opportunity to pause, think, and a choice to return to a different 'normal'. 

Health has been a rising issue on the planning agenda, but some are now questioning whether we need to reconsider what a healthy place looks like. For example, public transport was previously considered central to reducing pollution levels, but now crowded buses, trams and trains are seen as high risk zones for disease transmission. 

However, I do not believe we have to make a choice between avoiding public transport and avoiding increased air pollution. 

The basic principles of planning for healthy places, such as encouraging active travel and exercise, easy access to services and facilities, and decent housing, are well evidenced, established, and do not need to change. In fact, it is these very principles I am advocating. 

Again, taking the example of transport, creating compact, walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods, with a mix of employment opportunities nearby reduces the need to travel (by car or public transport) in the first place. 

"We already know how to create healthy places, we just need a bigger, bolder shift to implementing this"

Similarly, creating green, attractive and safe streets will encourage people to walk and cycle. High car use leads to a vicious cycle away from active travel, as roads and streets are seen as less safe so people choose to drive rather than cycle and so on. But on my trips outside the house during lockdown I catch a glimpse of utopia – streets have been reclaimed by people, whilst cars stay stationary. 

The difficulties in social distancing where I live in London suggest we need more space for people, but this doesn't necessarily mean lower density development – it can be achieved through prioritising people over vehicles. 

Through a move to more active travel and more remote working, vehicular transport can be reserved for those who really need it, allowing more street space to be given over to pedestrians. Furthermore, allocating more street space for active travel, through widening pavements and growing the cycle network, will allow space for an increased number of pedestrians and cyclists to practice social distancing.

Many cities are already implementing this, at least temporarily, as part of their lockdown-easing strategies. For example, car-free streets are being established through the Streetspace for London programme and Berlin and Budapest are replacing vehicle lanes with temporary bike lanes. 

In addition to transport, providing decent, affordable housing for all can help reduce overcrowded households and ensure people have the space to self-isolate, if needed. Ensuring access to local, fresh, healthy food can help overall health, therefore bolstering resilience to disease, as well as reducing traffic movements from delivery vehicles.

We already know how to create healthy places, we just need a bigger, bolder shift to implementing this. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that drastic changes can and do happen and a new normal can become established - with multiple health benefits.

Sarah Smith is a principal planner with LUC

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