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Since the pandemic, people need to access green space and connect with nature more than ever before. I work with people who face a lot of inequalities through multiple levels of deprivation and have seen the impact of covid on these communities and their health.
We know, from the Marmot Review in 2010 and the follow up research in 2020, how important access to greenspace is to decrease health inequalities and yet we can see that new developments in cities are happening in some areas which will result in less access for those who need it most.
It is so important that we try to rethink the way our cities are designed, and the way we use them to make it easier for everyone to be able to get out and get some fresh air in greenspaces, as it is so vital for people’s physical and mental health.
When my child was 3 years old, I realised there were not many activities for new parents to get involved in that were outdoors and active. I started a family cycling group in my local area called East Bristol Kidical Mass. It was fantastic to see there were other parents who want to be active with their children, but I realised that most of the other parents were white middle class and that many women from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds didn’t even know how to ride a bike. Whether they grew up in the United Kingdom or abroad, it wasn’t something that was actively encouraged.
I started to teach cycling to Black, Asian and minority ethnic women in my neighbourhood. It was astonishing to notice the contrast between those people who felt comfortable and confident using public space, who have access to easy active travel and feel like it is ‘for them’, and those from marginalised backgrounds who felt marginalised in public space as well. It is really important that women especially from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds feel they have just as much right to public space as anybody else.
We all make up the city and it should be ‘owned’ by all of us. Our public realm is like a form of the commons – a space that we all access and look after, it should provide areas to dwell and connect, as well as travel through. Whether young or old, regardless of background and ethnicity, everyone should be able to use these spaces in a buggy, on foot, cycle or mobility aid. Currently, motorised vehicles are prioritised in these space to the detriment of air quality and public safety – this needs to change if we are to aim for equity in the public realm.
There is so much that we can learn from changing the way we live. If we could all slightly shift and make a few more journeys on foot or by bike and a few less by car, this can have such a positive impact. Travelling this way is not only better for our physical health but also our mental health, and the health of the planet. It also increases social interaction as we are more likely to bump into someone we know. Lockdown has helped me realise how much we need that social connectedness.
Throughout the first lockdown there were fewer cars on the road and through local air pollution sensors we saw how much difference this made to the air quality. This is another environmental justice issue as the air quality is lower in those parts of the city that are already underserved in the first place.
It is so important for government and policymakers to engage with people and create opportunities for communities to get involved in co-designing spaces and policies. Taking this ground up approach would help ensure those from underserved, especially Black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds don’t suffer disproportionately in future lockdowns.
It is clear that families living in a tower block in the middle of the city are going to have less easy access to green space than those living in a leafy suburb. By recognising this and asking those people what has made lockdown difficult and what would make it better, we can design housing and spaces for health.
Think about how to make spaces accessible and enjoyable. Where can children play? How well can elderly people get around? Our cities should be easy to get around, easy to connect with your friends and neighbours and access green space, whether you are a small child or an elderly person.
Consider what the priorities are. Is it drivers or pedestrians? With less cars on the road during the first lockdown, people felt more comfortable cycling around, even those who hadn’t done it before. But in the subsequent lockdowns the roads were much more dominated by drivers and people were driving really fast, which is really off-putting for those wanting to walk or cycle.
Be a community activist. Try to stay positive and influence change wherever possible. If everybody uses their voice, we are a lot more likely to change the world, to change our spaces and make them better for all of us.
How can you influence positive change in your community?
This blog is based on an interview with Zoe Banks Gross that originally appeared on The Equal Group’s Representations Matters podcast.