Shaping Neighbourhoods: The Effects of a Global Pandemic
Posted on: June 30, 2020
By Hugh Barton, Marcus Grant, Richard Guise
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the writing of the new edition of Shaping Neighbourhoods – the guide for local health and global sustainability. As we write, the longer-term impacts of the virus are still uncertain. We are optimistically assuming that life will eventually get back to something like normal, that social distancing will not be a permanent state, that hospitality providers will be viable, that public transport will not have permanently lowered capacity. However, the pandemic has some salutary lessons for us all: not to take things for granted; not to assume that the conventional wisdom of the recent past, or government policy-making, is set in aspic. There has been the exposure of deep inequalities in our societies in terms of death rates and income levels. On the positive side pollution levels have fallen, people can breathe clean air, hear birdsong, allow children to cycle. A dramatic shift in city policy, if not governments’, is evident in the urbanism field. That shift is from thinking of roads as traffic conduits, to thinking of them as pedestrian and cyclist streets, also places to enjoy rather than simply to travel. A number of cities have begun implementing radical plans to convert street priorities, widen pavements, insert safe cycle-lanes, initially on a quick and temporary basis but looking forward to permanence. At the same time behaviour has changed. Many people are finding it is possible to work from home, which has implications for business and for the social function of town centres. The sale of e-bikes and e-scooters has increased. In the early days of lockdown the roads were suddenly emptied of traffic and people found pleasure in active travel.
But the most remarkable insight from the crisis is the degree to which governments across the world have re-discovered their ability to act. The prevailing zeitgeist of neo-liberalism was abruptly cast aside. Public funds became available, thanks in part to historically low interest rates, on a scale never before seen outside war times. Furthermore the rhetoric of the Corona Virus persuaded whole populations to abide by draconian rules of lock-down. And what was the rhetoric about? Public health! Governments, businesses and communities were convinced that increased public spending, changed behaviour and restrictions on freedom were necessary. In Britain the health motivation was very explicit: ‘save lives, save our NHS’.
In this dramatic context the revision of Shaping Neighbourhoods for its third edition (after the first in 2003 and the second in 2010) is timely. The guide is all about evolving towns and cities so that they facilitate healthy lifestyles, healthy lives. It links the principle of individual well-being and health equity to the health of communities, to the health of the bioregions which settlements depend on, and beyond that to the health of the whole planet. What is good for people, in terms of behaviour and local environment, is also good for the Earth. The huge, growing challenge of climate change, now internationally recognised as climate emergency, gives a particular sharpness to spatial policy and design: net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The political response to CV19 proves that nation states will take action, even at the expense of economic development, when fundamental values of human health are threatened. They surely are threatened by global heating – defined by the WHO as the biggest long-term health threat. We can demand a concerted focus on this issue, working across boundaries.
The guide offers a challenging agenda for urgent action that interprets the synergy between healthy lives, healthy places and healthy planetary ecology into practical planning policies and design quality. Neighbourhoods are the local human habitat, giving spatial context to people’s lives. To achieve healthy and sustainable neighbourhoods, action needs to be taken in relation to every facet, from property rights to green infrastructure, from housing mix to business parks, from tiny urban forests to street design for people not traffic.
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Action is as urgent in poorer and intermediate countries as in rich countries. The guide attempts to be relevant and helpful in many contexts. While geography, cultures and economic conditions vary, urban development patterns and related urban crises are surprisingly similar across the globe: car dependence, obesity, air pollution, growing inequality in health, housing and accessibility, lack of access to nature. In the right strategic context of location, transport and bio-region, good neighbourhoods can open up opportunities for all. But this will only happen when institutional and professional silos are broken down; when effective collaborative programmes are established, so that one decision reinforces another, working towards the common goal of humane, healthy, sustainable places to live. The guide looks particularly at the relationship between transport, planning and urban design, public health and the local communities. It gives an entrée to non-built environment professions, students and community activists while also providing urbanist practitioners much food for thought and action.
This book has an impressive pedigree. From the first guide to Sustainable Settlements in 1995, to the book that linked planning policy to health for the WHO (2000), through the earlier editions of this neighbourhood guide to the more recent multi-authored expert tome on planning for health (2015) and the sole-authored City of Well-being (2017). All are based on authoritative research and learn from best practice, working with local authorities across Europe with the WHO Healthy Cities network. It is the only comprehensive practical guide to the planning of neighbourhoods, working from first principles, underlying values and solid research through to detailed techniques, policies and designs. The logic of recent technological advances, together with behavioural changes learnt from the current crisis and the obligation to respond to the ecological emergency, married with the experience gained from 25 years of developing best practice in healthy place-making, challenge many of the assumptions of policy-makers and society at large. The recipes for success are clear. It is for politicians, investors and urbanists to recognise, and respond.
The opportunity for fundamental change has been highlighted by the Director General of the WHO at the World Health Assembly in Geneva this year. Shaping Neighbourhoods is like a direct response to the opportunity he points to. He said:
The “lockdown” measures that have been necessary to control the spread of COVID-19 have slowed economic activity, and disrupted lives - but have also given some glimpses of a possible brighter future. In some places, pollution levels have dropped to such an extent that people have breathed clean air, or have seen blue skies and clear waters, or have been able to walk and cycle safely with their children - for the first times in their lives. The use of digital technology has accelerated new ways of working and connecting with each other, from reducing time spent commuting, to more flexible ways of studying, to carrying out medical consultations remotely, to spending more time with our families. Opinion polls from around the world show that people want to protect the environment, and preserve the positives that have emerged from the crisis, as we recover.
Stay Tuned! Shaping Neighbourhoods: For Local Health and Global Sustainability, 3rd Edition by Hugh Barton, Marcus Grant, Richard Guise publishing early 2021.