How the post-viral city can “bounce-forward” in urban greenery

Apr 28, 2020
  • Article by Tili Bensley-Nettheim

Constant through the escalation, peaks and stagnations of COVID-19 has been a society-wide rumour mill about what a post-viral world might look like. 

Predictions and questions have ranged from the logistical to the philosophical. Will remote work become commonplace, having been stress-tested by the pandemic? Will our healthcare infrastructure learn this period’s tough lessons? How might we value each other now that our collective interdependency has been brought brutally to the foreground? 

To table such questions and return to a pre-viral ‘normal’ would be to waste a rare opportunity for large scale re-assessment of how our cities and spaces have worked, and who they have been working for. What would public space, urban greenery, city planning, transport infrastructure and interior design look like if they were to be ‘rebuilt better’?  

Looking at the pandemic through this optimistic lens, as providing us with the chance to redress, ADR asks architecture and design experts for their recovery perspectives. 

The first guest in our Post-Viral Design series, Dr Judy Bush is a lecturer in Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne and deputy leader of the Urban Greening for Liveability project with the University’s Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub. Her research focuses on urban environmental policy and planning, and nature-based solutions policy and governance in a changing climate.

Bush talks to ADR about the pandemic’s exposure of the “brittleness of our human systems” and the relationship between COVID-19 and climate change. 

What role does urban greenery play in public health? How has this been brought to the foreground during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Dr Judy Bush: There’s increasing evidence of the importance of urban greenery for city dwellers’ physical and mental health and wellbeing. Urban green space provides the spaces for people to exercise, to relax, to meet with friends and to connect with nature. These are all important at any time, but during the social isolation necessitated by COVID-19, the value of accessible urban green spaces has really come to the fore. It’s also highlighted the unevenness of access in a city like Melbourne – not all of us have access, within walking distance, to sufficient areas of green space – wide paths, space to maintain social distancing.

What do you see as the relationship between the two crises of our time: climate change and COVID-19?

JB: It’s astonishing how a virus has so comprehensively disrupted our usual ways of living and operating. Likewise, climate change has the potential for such comprehensive disruption – perhaps we could see it as a slower unfolding crisis, but without urgent action to reduce emissions, the scientific data and projections point to catastrophic damage to our environment, our cities, our systems of food and water and how we meet our basic needs.

I think COVID-19 has also exposed some of the vulnerabilities and ‘brittleness’ in our human systems, our social systems – it’s uncovered where we lack resilience, and where we’ve missed opportunities to invest resources towards strengthening our resilience.

What do you anticipate will be the impact of the pandemic on urban planning and greenery?

JB: I think we have the opportunity now, as a society, to discuss whether we want to ‘go back’ to what it was like before COVID-19, to ‘bounce-back’, or whether we want to use the experience of social isolation to refocus on what liveable, sustainable cities mean, to ‘bounce-forward’. I think it’s a chance to reassess how we spend our funding on public infrastructure – should we be funding massive freeways that actually don’t address the causes of traffic congestion and often make it worse? Or should we be shifting towards more resilient, multi-functional and human-scaled infrastructure that will be better suited to our climate changed future?

Can we use the push for post-COVID public infrastructure economic stimulus investment to direct towards restoring environments, increasing renewable energy generation, translating road spaces to active transport (walking and cycling) paths and so on.

Where does responsibility for urban greening post-pandemic lie? 

JB: With all of us – governments, researchers, developers, community groups, local businesses and local residents! All levels of government have roles in supporting urban greening, through funding provision, urban planning, land use management and so on. Community groups are already doing magnificent work to restore and manage urban waterways, community gardens, botanic gardens and even private gardens.

What would the best case scenarios for post-viral urban green spaces look like to you?

JB: A renewed focus on an appreciation for the importance of urban nature throughout cities; a recognition of the urgency to getting on with addressing climate change in the most comprehensive ways possible; economic stimulus investment targeting environmental restoration and climate change action, not just more and bigger ‘infrastructure’; an expanding public conversation about our collective interdependencies and how we can support stronger collaborations for resilient societies.

Stay tuned for more expert predictions in our Post-Viral Design series.

Keep abreast of developments in the A&D industry by following ADR‘s coronavirus coverage.

Lead photo: Wolf Zimmermann.


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