Walking through lightly,
with little luggage

As the world grapples with the fall out of a global pandemic, will we emerge with a new hunger for making different – better – choices? LDA Design Chair, Frazer Osment, looks at life on the other side of lockdown.

“And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”

Arundhati Roy, writer

On April 8th, Captain Tom Moore set himself the goal of completing 100 laps of his back garden in the hope of raising £1,000 for the NHS. All before his 100th birthday at the end of the month. To date, he has raised £30 million and counting. At the same time, we find out that deaths at home through domestic abuse have more than doubled during Covid-19 lockdown.

And so it has been throughout the course of this global pandemic. By turns, heartwarming and heartbreaking; surprising and sometimes sadly all too predictable. For every person uplifted by quieter streets, by the sudden simplicity of life, by the novelty of adult children living back at home, there is someone caught up in inner turmoil. People with no savings have been the first to lose their jobs. Inequalities that we have always known to be there are being thrown into ever sharper focus. Those with no outside space are moved on from sitting on a bench in their local park. Basketball courts and skate parks are taped off. Demand for food banks surges.

A springtime blossoming

In the face of these challenges, the communal response has been remarkable, uplifting. The community has stepped up and stepped in where Government has stumbled, from hand-stitched gowns and makeshift masks to food drops and drug runs. It is a somewhat sobering reflection on our society that many elderly people have reported feeling less lonely and isolated during lockdown than before the virus struck, as neighbours check in on them daily, some meeting for the first time.

If this is a genuinely game-changing moment, what does it mean for those of us who design, plan and deliver new places? The fact that life has been stripped back to food, home, exercise, and work has granted a widespread revelation that should never really have been needed – that we are people first and consumers second.

“When the tide pulls back, it reveals new-found treasures. And so too, as our world has shrunk, it has revealed much that we hold dear. It has given us the opportunity to see things anew. Now is the time for no small plans.”

Frazer Osment, Chair, LDA Design

In a short time, we have come to understand deeply the value of local; that knowing your neighbours is useful and adds meaning; that a well-stocked corner shop selling fresh food and a local green space which prioritises nature are lifesavers; and that some jobs have been underappreciated for far too long. This new reckoning provides us with a more humane baseline for design and planning.

Before the crisis, there was much talk of levelling up the UK between north and south but levelling up needs to happen within every village, town and city. Disparities between rich and poor are stark. Around 14.5 million people live in poverty, with four million at 50% below the breadline. Key workers struggle to afford to live anywhere close to where they work.

In rural areas, weak access to decent broadband or mobile signal coverage has taken on new urgency, with people struggling to maintain social contact online. Rural businesses will be left with debt, and the road ahead is rocky for core institutions such as village halls, shops and pubs, and community organisations.

At a time when Government and local authority budgets will be stretched as never before, a new perspective is critical, to direct different – better – choices. The right to breathe clean air, have contact with nature, decent public space to meet and feel connected to our communities – this all must be at the centre of everything we plan in the future.


Readying for a remake

Through the reimagining of our streets and spaces, can we start to remake society itself? Say, for example, we invest in local resources so that life’s essentials are within easy reach, this could significantly reduce the need for short car journeys, transforming our streets into places that are more walkable and cyclable with free-flowing public transport. Revenue targeted for new road networks could be directed instead into providing faster, more reliable broadband, made free for those on lower incomes.

When restrictions are eased, we can’t expect people to tolerate over-crowded buses and trains as they did before. Early studies have shown that vulnerable people with long-term exposure to air pollution from heavily trafficked streets have much higher death rates from Covid-19. ‘Tactical urbanism’ has been making interim improvements to the public realm in New Zealand during lockdown, often repurposing road space by creating or widening pavements and creating pop-up bike lanes with brightly painted concrete blocks and planters. Transport for London is looking at such experiments now, and they may well create community demand for permanent change.    

Drawing on our natural networks, we could turn local landscapes into sustainable, productive ones and reverse nature’s ‘great thinning’. In densely populated areas, we will need to retrofit neighbourhoods, public space and green space to allow for more low-density exercise and play. Repurposing parts of our high street could throw up new opportunities for the next generation of entrepreneurs. Now is the time for no small plans.

The writer Arundhati Roy wrote recently in response to the health crisis in India: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Linocut by Frazer Osment. 

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