London Parks, Space, and Pandemic

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View towards central London from Hampstead.

Post-quarantine urbanism is still a dream in London. There is an ongoing lockdown. The official advice from the UK government (website here) is:

Stay at home

- Only go outside for food, health reasons or work (but only if you cannot work from home)

- If you go out, stay 2 metres (6ft) away from other people at all times

- Wash your hands as soon as you get home

- Do not meet others, even friends or family. You can spread the virus even if you don’t have symptoms

Stay at home and food, health and work reasons mean very different things to different people. The spatial inequality of an expensive major city like London is exacerbated, and at the same time the lived experiences of Londoners are even further segregated. Different lives are exposed to different aspects of the quarantine city.

“Free”-time in London is often spent in shops, cafes, bars, restaurants, gyms, galleries, and cinemas. You can pay to access these places and experience what they have to offer. If you want to do something for free, your options are limited, but there are the open spaces of London’s parks. The distribution of these parks and green spaces and access to them is a contentious issue even outside of the quarantine city. Inside the quarantine city, who gets to use them and how becomes a greater political issue.

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Parakeets on Hampstead Heath in North London (a few months ago).

The professional class of people involved in political decision making and media coverage will have a very different experience to the carers, the food deliverers, the previous and newly unemployed, and designated key workers.

Current policy states that if an employee can work from home (what constitutes this “ability” is undefined), and the employer can still operate, then they are expected to do so. If the nature of the work is considered “key”, for example healthcare, other care, agriculture, food production, then the work is continued both remotely and in the physical sites where this is necessary. For “unnecessary” work that has had to cease due to the lockdown, the government has underwritten 80% of employees’ wages.

The physical effect of this guidance on the urban ecosystem is drastic. Everyone is at home if they are not at work, for many people this has become the same location. The physical mobilities of commuting are now replaced by their online versions. Many people are now newly unemployed, unable to earn at home if self-employed, or on an 80% salary not working.

There is a very large difference between what stay at home means for a homeowner now working from home, with access to a garden and spare bedrooms, and what it means to the 7.6% of households in London that are overcrowded, 1.5 persons per bedroom or higher (the rest of the statistics and numbers are from these reports here). Overcrowding is even more prevalent in the private and social rented sector with overcrowding in 15% of households in social housing, and 12% of those in private rented housing. Further inequalities relate to the demographics of households with 40% and 25% of children under 16 in social and private rented housing living in households officially considered as over-crowded.

So, many of these people staying at home are not “isolated”. Staying at home doesn’t risk loneliness for them. There is an even greater risk for those cohabiting with abusive partners and families with a steep rise in calls to domestic abuse charities and fear of an increase in abuse.

Access to green space and the outdoors does not stop these situations and crimes from occurring, but the distribution of access to them is interlinked with issues of health inequalities.

The narrative of stay at home is reiterated by government officials and politicians, often on a video call from an office space within their house. Research shows that in London, wealthier areas are likely to have a greater amount of private garden space. An MP (Minister for Parliament) wage places these people in a higher bracket of socioeconomic status than the average UK adult.

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Crane seen from a park.

In Hackney, a densely populated borough of London, Victoria Park was closed. This was due, according to Tower Hamlets Council, to “the failure of some visitors to follow social distancing guidance” the council asserted that “other parks in the borough remain open”. This approach is punitive towards the individuals accessing outside space, the lack of coherent thinking behind this decision is confirmed by the keeping of other parks in the area open. After the closing of the park created significant crowding on the canal path that runs alongside it the park was reopened.

The traditionally right-wing tabloid press in the UK were quick to demonize these individuals seeking outside space. This view ignores the reasons why people may seek outside space, and the benefits of accessing it for mental and physical health. In London, parks represent one of the few places that people can go without spending money, a non-transactional environment that benefits all who use it. Now parks are some of the only places available for anyone to go. The governmental narrative is built around telling people they must stay in, leaving only for exercise. A family with children no longer able to go to school in overcrowded housing should have a right to access green space for reasons other than exercise.

A large part of the UK print media, and government advice represent those going outside for anything other than constant exercise or motion as irresponsible risk takers. Government has stated that it is permissible to drive somewhere to go for a walk as long as the walk taken is longer than the drive. This presupposes access to a private vehicle. At the same time people are not allowed to sit on a bench in their local park, or sit and eat lunch as a family outside. This is the stigmatisation of deprivation. The real irresponsible risks taken in this country have been at a systemic governmental level, from ongoing under funding of the National Health Service, to the casual approach taken to this crisis by the heads of this government.

Can the explicit necessity of using these spaces in the quarantine city help populations and decision makers to appreciate the importance of these parks? Are the owners of political and economic capital isolating in their multi-bedroomed garden houses, or decamping to second homes in the countryside, and are they aware that these people out in the sun are exercising their rights as urban citizens in the face of significant systemic governmental failure?


Alfie Long

Alfie Long
Alfie is PhD Student at UCL Geography. He uses data science techniques to research how people need and use public transport.

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