INSIGHTS PIECE – Stephen Smith | Principal Planning and Design
My house overlooks a sports field which the local community calls ‘The Flats’. It’s not a public park, they are owned by a private school, but the school doesn’t stop the community using the space.
In this time of dealing with a pandemic and physical separation I have never seen the space more heavily used by locals. Normally I stumble out of bed at first light and take the dog (Billie Jo) across the road and we’ll have the space to ourselves – except for maybe a few other diehards who are regulars like me.
But not anymore, the space is busy from sunup till sundown.
I have read with interest some articles suggesting that the work from home transition that has taken place all around the world will be a continuing phenomenon. I doubt that’s true and don’t think it will be an ongoing trend.
William Whyte in his excellent short documentary entitled the ‘Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’ said it best – “what attracts other people most it appears is other people”.
People are social creatures; we like being around other people. We are physically evolved to work as a cooperative society living in close quarters and living life as part of a community. Much of our communication – our facial expressions and body language – is nonverbal and it relies on being physically present with other people.
And now with workplaces closed, gyms shut, cafes, hotels, pubs and places that we would normally get together and socialise all gone, I suspect we are all looking for a bit of connection – we are missing our ‘people’ fix. Which means the only place we are getting it from are the streets, parks and public spaces around us.
Never before have our parks and open spaces been so needed as places where we can connect with the people in our community. People are keeping their distance as required, but we are still communicating and engaging with our neighbours. There are more hello’s than ever before, more smiles and nods, more dogs being walked, more kids on bikes, scooters and skateboards. In a time of physical separation our public spaces are working harder than ever to carry the load of community connection. They are the living rooms of our neighbourhoods. And instead of watching the television we are satisfying one of our other human needs and that is our need for belonging.
If there is an ongoing legacy that comes out of this pandemic let’s hope it is that we don’t undervalue and underestimate the role parks and public spaces play in community life and connection. When all else fails our public spaces play a vital function in the wellbeing of community.
As a planner and urban designer, we always look to mark the centre of our neighbourhoods in some way. Perhaps its time we envisaged new neighbourhoods with a park as its centre – as the place for community focus and social interaction rather than some form of commercial or community facility. A place that is the centre of our community, physically and functionally. That is egalitarian and where everyone is welcome.
Principal Planning and Design