As the Covid pandemic drags on and schools and universities remain closed, children and youth in particular are tired of being cooped up at home. Serious as they are, it is not just the loss of livelihoods and education that affect us; we need to have social contact, relaxation, and recreation.
Realising this basic human need, and given a significant reduction in travel as many people work remotely and learn again to cook for themselves, many cities internationally are dedicating road space that was formerly reserved for the automobile to cycling, walking, or outdoor play. Rue de Trivoli, a major boulevard in Paris, has thus been repurposed and is now lively, with people safely getting their exercise—and fun—outdoors. Other cities around the world have seen a surge in pop-up bicycle lanes and have widened their footpaths.
Children and youth are resilient and creative. Some climb over boundary walls to access fields when the gate is locked. Others take over streets at quiet times to play cricket or football. They are almost exclusively male and they know that their behaviour is frowned upon. Children should be encouraged to play outdoors rather than prevented, and girls should feel equally welcomed.
What if, instead of trying to protect people by trapping them indoors, we tried to understand better the way that Covid is spread. Enclosed indoor spaces are dangerous, especially when they lack sufficient ventilation. Being outdoors, especially if not in a crowd, is quite safe. For people in cramped homes, it can be safer to spend time outdoors than inside, and exercising in a park or on a street is vastly safer than exercising in a gym.
It is difficult to open schools safely, as experiences in other countries have shown, but it is relatively simple to address the social and psychological, if not educational, needs of young people by allowing them access to open spaces outdoors. And while I am focusing on young people, the need for recreation and social interaction is true of all ages.
During Covid, and well into the future, we need to acknowledge and prioritize the need people have for open public spaces such as parks and fields, and ensure that those spaces are not destroyed in the name of “development”. During Covid, and beyond, we can repurpose the most abundant public space—our streets—either temporarily (a few hours a week) or permanently into true public space, no longer dominated by the private vehicles of the elite. On a more modest scale, we can convert some parking spaces, temporarily or permanently, into small parks (parklets), once again returning some of our public space to public use.
Where would all the cars go? Truthfully we’d be better off with far fewer of them. And why are so worried about cars and so little concerned about the mental health of our population? Yes, some people will be inconvenienced. They may have to learn to adjust their routine to stay closer to home or, like the majority in the city, rely on other forms of transport. In return, we could provide opportunities for physical and mental health, nay, happiness, to the many.
The writer is the Executive Director of Institute of Wellbeing