By James Grant, Practice Lead, Design + Planning

An exciting thing has been happening in our cities. We have witnessed a process of rapid mass decentralisation due to coronavirus. As we juggle disrupted work patterns, our once-bustling CBDs have been rendered ghost towns as we’ve hunkered down.

Everyday aspects of our lives, like work and school, have pivoted online. Meanwhile, our local neighbourhoods have become the focus of everything else. This dramatic shift has resulted in a broad range of impacts on our society, some visible and temporary, some invisible and long-lasting. Although much of the focus has been on the negative, there have been some positives too.

For example, the increased flexibility that some of us have enjoyed working from home. Reduced time spent commuting, more straightforward school drop off and pick up and more quality time with family could be viewed as positives. Admittedly, this has been a nightmare scenario for some, as office politics has been replaced with sibling rivalry and hours of draining video calls.

We can probably all agree that – it has led to a seismic shift in the way we think about our personal space and how we engage with our local area and the city as a whole. Our reliance on local parks, public space, and foreshore trails has been critical to our overall wellbeing.

However, the quality of local amenity is not equally distributed. Consider those who aren’t lucky enough to live in a walkable neighbourhood where you don’t have to rely on a car to access local shops, services, or a park. What would life be like under lockdown if you didn’t have a park within walking distance?

For over 340,000 people in Melbourne, recent analysis by academics from La Trobe and Griffith University highlighted that reality in  ‘Thousands of Melburnians no parkland within 5km’, showing the challenges many Melburnians have accessing parks for exercise or escaping the stresses of lockdown.

For anyone at home under a lockdown or working at home, be it alone, with a flatmate, a partner, or home-schooling kids, a daily trip to a park provides an invaluable opportunity to reset. And for those currently under stage four restrictions in Melbourne, visiting streets, parks, and public space is pretty much the only respite on offer.

What concerns me is that it took lockdown to bring these issues around equity of access to the fore. These people never had access to a park near their home before coronavirus, and now they can’t drive to a park either? This is a massive failure in urban planning. Everyone in our cities should be able to access parks and greenspace within a reasonable walk from their home. It’s not that these failures can’t be undone, but it’s harder and far more expensive to retrofit parks once our cities and suburbs are built out.

Coronavirus lockdowns have amplified the critical role our parks and green spaces play in daily life for our physical health and wellbeing. In July, the ABC reported, ‘Sydney’s green space use booms during Covid-19’. According to Suellen Fitzgerald, the Executive Director of Western Sydney Parklands, “We’ve had a 100 per cent increase in people on our track and trails in Western Sydney Parklands since COVID-19 commenced”.

In August, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article ‘Good for the soul’ reporting visitation in some national parks was up anywhere from 60-120%. NSW Minister for Energy and Environment Matt Kean noted, “While we go through this pandemic, it’s so important to have areas, close to where people live, where people can exercise and enjoy nature.”

Couldn’t agree more, but wasn’t this always the case? Have we all suddenly become woke parks people? If so, bring it on, let’s hear more about the value of our parks and public space and the value of green infrastructure in our cities!

On the subject of more people visiting parks and public space, we should build on the work achieved by the Department of Planning, Industry, and Environment in the Everyone Can Play guideline, designed to deliver more inclusive play options for everyone. If broadened to our parklands, streets, and cities generally, this would make a powerful tool to guide design and planning decisions. In the spirit of the Everyone Can Play guideline, we need to ensure our cities, parks, and public space are accessible and inclusive for everyone.

The NSW Premier has outlined a priority to ‘increase the proportion of homes in urban areas within 10 minutes’ walk of quality green, open and public space by 10 per cent by 2023′. No longer is it acceptable to have suburbs where you need to drive to a park for recreation, exercise, or to unwind. We need every agency, every council, and every developer across Sydney to get behind this cause. And everyone who plays a role in shaping our cities needs to make equity of access to parks and public space a priority.

In many ways, coronavirus is a wake-up call, an opportunity to take stock and reset priorities in how we plan our cities. Proper planning for parks and green links makes good sense from an economic, health, and wellbeing perspective.

No longer are parks and public space a nice to have, the people have spoken with their feet – parks are essential, and now more than ever we need them.

James Grant leads the Design and Planning team in Sydney at AECOM.

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Banner Image – Black Beach Reserve, Kiama