Tuesday, 28 September, 2021

Public Space, Covid and Right to Recreation

Debra Efroymson

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.

And what have we done in Dhaka? Closed parks and fields, and halted all our carfree day programs such as in Uttara and on Manik Mia Avenue. Prior to Covid, the first Friday of every month, from 8 to 11 a.m., one side of Manik Mia was transformed into a lively space where young children played a number of games under the watchful eyes of their parents, while youth played football, volleyball, and cricket or rode bicycles or roller skates. A similar scene occurred in Uttara every Friday morning and on a small street in Mohammadi Housing Society in Mohammadpur one Saturday a month. Streets were transformed from domination by motor vehicles to places where young people could actively enjoy themselves, the sound of laughter and shouts echoing, people standing outside chatting with friends and strangers. Livable, lively streets.

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.

Our lives have changed in so many ways due to Covid; why not voluntarily embrace a change that would permanently reduce congestion, pollution, and deadly crashes while making Dhaka more liveable? Let’s liberate more of our public space for public use and relegate the automobile, rather than pushing our children and youth, to the status of second-class citizens.


The writer is the Executive Director of Institute of Wellbeing