The new importance of urban greenspaces: Bringing it home.
Words by Dr Kate Neale and Michael Casey MIAH RH
Never has access to greenspace been more valued and heralded as in the COVID-19 climate. Concerns for the impact of lockdowns on mental wellbeing have shifted the way we see time spent in greenspaces during the crisis from recreational to medicinal in nature.
But as large urban public greenspaces began to close amid fears of the virus spreading through congregation and people were mandated to stay in their local neighbourhoods, seeking access to nature locally or even more importantly within our own homes became imperative – and for some, difficult. Suddenly living in urban high-rise, high-density apartments near prized pockets of urban greenspaces didn’t offer the same access to public amenity. The lack of private or semi-private gardens within building developments became not only glaringly obvious, but worse yet, problematic as we balanced safety and our physical and mental health and wellbeing.
Whilst large-scale public greenspaces will, and should always be considered a valuable public asset for the masses to enjoy, how do we safeguard ourselves from a sudden and complete detachment from nature in the event of likely future pandemics?
Practical solutions to ensuring the provision of access to greenspaces during pandemics are not too difficult to imagine, although balancing the use of high-density urban development whilst achieving such aims will require some reimagination.
Public zones within residential developments are easily imagined as outward facing, large scale spaces and installations. The best examples incorporate urban farms, sustainable use of natural resources, multi-layered and multi-purposed gardens, towering green-wall and facades, community verges, and communal seating areas. They soften the grey environment, foster sustainable living and promote a sense of togetherness and ‘place’. Creating localised greenspaces provide a chance to engage with nature, nurture a sense of community, enable us to look out for our neighbours, and importantly localise any threat of infection that could possibly occur.
Often notable in their design though, is the absolute separation of private residential living spaces from each other, and often from nature. And really, until now you could argue that hasn’t been a problem. We seem to like knowing nature is at our doorstep, accessible when we wish to engage with it, and happy to share with others whilst maintaining our own private spaces. In the current climate, this has been essential for our own public health and that of others. COVID-19 though has also brought out the exact opposite reflex in humans too. We reached out to neighbours, we stood on balconies to feel a connection to each other and we came together to make sure others around us were doing okay. The images of this worldwide set the tone for the silver lining of the pandemic.
So, as we creep back into our (new) normal way of life – even having faired comparatively well to elsewhere in the world – we should take note of what proved important in the early uncertain moments, and in doing so ask ourselves: How can we use nature and landscape design to drive community spirit, togetherness and connection, even in the darkest moments of isolation?
The answer may lay in the blueprints of some of the world’s most innovative biophilic inspired building design. One (of many) fascinating characteristics of beautifully designed biophilic buildings are the way they re-imagine private spaces such as balconies and terraces as deeply integrated in the overall building design. They push back on the notion that balconies or terraces are blank canvases to be left for residents to adorn. Instead, such spaces are viewed as a jigsaw piece within an overall narrative for the whole design, to be enjoyed privately but contributing to an entire landscape for all to enjoy. Innovation and technology have seen large trees or growing structures spanning many stories high from balconies, creating a collective forest to enjoy such as seen at Bosco Verticale. It also importantly becomes symbolic of a collective effort amongst residents, a shared vision for contributing to a more beautiful world and a tangible connection to each other through something living and ever-changing. Integrated indoor-outdoor spaces and ample glass windows allow us to also enjoy from within our own private residences where needed or desired – making any necessary retreat still connected to nature and community.
There is no doubt such visions are ambitious and complex. But these should be shared visions for our city councils, local environmental, social and cultural organisations too. Imagine cities that didn’t just replicate nature but tell the story of its cultural, industrial and natural history, and in doing so protects species of all kinds. Overseas examples such the Bronx’s Via Verde social housing complex demonstrate the importance and possibility of developments to sit meaningfully within its local setting by contributing to the economic, environmental and social sustainability of society. As COVID-19 has horrifically highlighted, poverty, inequity and a lack of access to resources makes the vulnerable even more so in a crisis. It has also proved the benefits of a multi-agency approach to social provision and thoughtful design need not be reserved for the top end of town.
As we begin to enjoy the freedoms that will come with the easing of restrictions on personal movement, we shouldn’t forget what we valued prior to the pandemic and what will still be important to us into the future. It is a tricky balance and one that will no doubt be debated as we work together to reimagine a future we perhaps never quite expected so soon.
Dr Kate Neale is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Children and Young People and specialises in the therapeutic benefits of horticulture for children, and people with disability. She is also the Vice President of Therapeutic Horticulture Australia.
Michael Casey is Director of Evergreen Infrastructure Pty Ltd, a Design, Consultation, Construction and Management company operating in and around Melbourne. He is President of the Australian Institute of Horticulture. Michael can be contacted via: firstname.lastname@example.org.