Staying safe by staying at home needn’t mean missing out on a daily dose of nature, says Paul de Zylva, Chair of London National Park City.

Now’s also a good time to start planning life after lockdown including how life in London can be greener, healthier and wilder.

Life inside out

Spring has sprung and we all need to get out more, don’t we? But just as people want to be out and about, the coronavirus lockdown confines us to quarters.

Staying inside is tough and we’ll have to see how it affects the nation’s physical and mental health.

At least it’s springtime. Without being pollyannaish just imagine if the nights were drawing in and we faced the prospect of a lockdown Christmas. We want to be cosy indoors at Christmas but at least we can choose to get out for exercise.

As the sap rises, trees come into leaf and bees busy themselves, the springtime lockdown is fuelling our desire to escape the confines of four walls, however homely, and to head to parks and the great outdoors for exercise and contact with nature.

People have also told me, and are saying on social media, how they’re noticing things they usually miss or take for granted.

Or, in the case of author, Alan Cleaver, who amusingly admitted on twitter: 

“Living next to a pub, I'm used to late-night revellers shouting but what really annoyed me was the chap who would imitate an owl hoot around 2.30am every night. Now pubs are shut I realise the hooting still goes on and it's not a drunk. It is actually an owl.” @thelonningsguy

And he lives in ‘the countryside’.

In our busy ‘normal’ lives there’s no time to look, listen and appreciate our surroundings is there? Or perhaps we don’t make the time. Besides, there’s always something else to do.

But even now, when it’s easier than ever to be distracted by devices, online chats, exercise and learning courses, people are noticing things. Birdsong is being heard as never before thanks to it being spring but aided by the lack of noise from traffic-free roads and aircraft-free skies.

London’s air is also cleaner than usual and its streets safer to cross. We are not alone in enjoying some of these new experiences. Residents of Los Angeles have also enjoyed the rarity of clean air. People in northern India are enjoying unusually clear views of the Himalayas, and the shutdown in Japan coincides with the tradition of viewing (‘Hanami’) of the cherry blossom.

Declarations of optimism

On a walk soon into the lockdown I saw the brilliant white hawthorn in full bloom. A few weeks later the foaming mass is gone. Even the powers of flowers can’t resist the cycle of the seasons. It’s not sad, it’s what happens. Like other plants, the hawthorn will now move on, shifting to the next seasonal gear and focussing on forming its small red berries (haws) for birds to feast on during lean winter months. 

Meanwhile, the hedge will provide all manner of wildlife with shelter, materials and more. And the blooms will be back next spring, and perhaps even during Easter. 

Easter weekend has passed but, as Christians may point out, we’re still in Eastertide - the fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. In ancient Greek the word ‘Anastasi’ means ‘to rise’ and ‘resurrection’. It also means ‘to emerge’ and ‘to shift’ toward a higher ‘arisen’ or awakened state.

Spring’s sights and sounds also herald the start of the gardening season with many tending their window boxes, balconies and houseplants and, if they have one, their garden or allotment.

Sales of seeds have rocketed as many have a go - often for the first time - at sprouting microgreens on a window sill, making bee-friendly pit-stops of their pots and planters, or food growing Dig for Victory-style.

If ever there was a declaration of optimism it’s the springtime sowing of seeds and nurturing them into plants. Sharing and swapping seeds and seedlings is also trending as part of the renewed sense of community as neighbours talk, often for the first time, help with shopping, give to food-banks and support local businesses.

Park and pounds

London’s parks and green spaces are also being valued as never before. Long before the lockdown studies stated how routine access to nature and green space supports good physical and mental health.

Some GPs have also been advising patients to increase their time spent in nature and the great outdoors rather than rely on prescription medicines.

As if more evidence of how green space is good for us was needed, a 2017 study of the financial benefit to our health of London’s parks found they save £370 million a year in avoided mental ill-health costs alone – that’s £42 per person every year.

That’s fine if your area is well served with green space, but not all communities in the capital have equal access to parks and green open space.

Closed2 c Paul De Zylva

Greening the grey

The London borough of Tower Hamlets has 300 hectares of public parks. Having the equivalent of 300 rugby pitches sounds a lot but it’s just 14 percent of the borough which covers 2,200 hectares.

For people living in Tower Hamlets, from Bethnal Green and Canary Wharf to Limehouse, Poplar and Wapping, that means having poor access to public parks in London for a hint of a breath of fresh air – if they’re lucky – or for a break from the glass, steel and concrete jungle.

The government values parks and green spaces too. In its 18 April covid-19 briefing, the Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, ordered parks to be kept open during lockdown:

“…there have been examples of some parks around the country closing. This cannot be right. While the virus does not discriminate, we know that the lockdown is much harder for people who don’t have a lot of living space, who don’t have a garden, and who don’t have anywhere for their children to run around.

“People need parks. That’s why I have made it clear to councils that all parks must remain open. For the health of the nation, people should be able to safely enjoy fresh air and green space.”

I couldn’t agree more, but it doesn’t help that government policy and funding cuts mean our parks and green spaces are in decline and often face development pressures.

More of the good stuff, please

The huge demand by millions of people for green space right now says loud and clear the government can and must start meeting people’s needs, not preventing us from having more of the good stuff which we want (and need) for our health and wellbeing. 

There’s also the matter of people in flats. Some of my neighbours who rent are prevented from using the garden, which is madness even in ‘normal’ times. With that denial being underlined by the lockdown perhaps they’d like to have the opportunity. 

Who knows? Perhaps this will also challenge thinking that new housing shouldn’t have or does not need much or any garden space which is touted by some, but not all, developers, architects and planners.

The usual mantra of things being too expensive, or that parks and green space have to be developed for our own good won’t wash. 

What If?

We CAN have quality, truly affordable housing AND quality local green space that’s good for us and for the birds and the bees - it’s time for our own recovery to be planned with that of nature.

What if we emerged from this crisis with plans to make our streets, neighbourhoods and city greener, healthier and wilder? 

That doesn’t have to be a dream. It’s what thousands of people from all walks of life have worked for by getting behind London National Park City.

What if we made the most of these positive desires (#WhatIf) and locked them in when the lockdown lifts?

Send us your What If? ideas using the hashtag #WhatIf

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