Here's how we can keep our green spaces open during the Covid crisis.
If your local park were to close this weekend, would you have anywhere to go to take your permitted daily exercise? Some of us are lucky enough to have a garden, but for many of those people it will still be incredibly small.
For thousands in small, shared occupancies in urban areas, we might have no outdoor space at all. For these people, local parks are a lifeline which should not be taken away. Green spaces are an issue not just of health and wellbeing but an issue of equality.
Last weekend, just down the road from me, in an ill thought out and apparently knee-jerk reaction Lambeth Council closed the gates of Brockwell Park to local residents, after complaining that over 3,000 people had made use of the green space. As many on Twitter quickly pointed out, even if all of these people were in the park at once (which they weren’t) there would be more than enough space in a 125 acre park for people to maintain physical distance.
In response, Matt Hancock went on the Sunday news to threaten to take away the right to outdoor exercise altogether, owing to the actions of what everyone seems to agree is a small minority of people flouting the advice.
Local authorities and the government must end these threats to deny people responsible access to green spaces. There is a plethora of evidence showing that access to green spaces brings huge health benefits. If councils are concerned about compliance with social distancing rules, they should ensure that the rules are followed by everyone, not shut the park to everyone because of the actions of a few.
Clearly it is not sustainable to keep closing our biggest, open spaces in the name of promoting physical distancing, forcing locals into narrow surrounding streets for their walks and jogs. Instead, this is a question of ensuring that our public parks are staffed and maintained at the level they should be.
This is yet another story about the hollowing out of public provision in recent decades. A report in 2016 found that 92% of parks departments have experienced cuts, despite the fact that park use is rising. One of the reasons for this is that local authorities don’t have a statutory duty to provide and maintain parks, which means that they’re often at the back of the queue when allocating funding.
So what can be done?
With a four day weekend and a lockdown being extended for the foreseeable future, we need instant action.
In the immediate term, local authorities should second non-essential staff to the task of protecting our parks, putting them on patrol to ensure that people making use of them are doing so responsibly and taking appropriate action against people who simply refuse to comply with the rules.
And we must reverse the cuts to green space, and instate a statutory duty to ensure that our parks are properly staffed in the future.
Another thing we could do right now is open up more privately owned green space to public access, meaning that there is more space for everyone. There are 300,000 acres of golf courses across the country, for example, which should be given over to the common good during this crisis.
Access to a green space for just a short walk or a quick jog is perfectly consistent with the government’s own advice, and it’s perfectly consistent with responsible physical distancing measures.
With mental health being adversely affected by this lockdown, not to mention the obvious limitations on physical activity, outdoor exercise isn’t a luxury, it’s essential.
Public green spaces should be part of the frontline services of this pandemic alongside our hospitals and supermarkets. They must get an influx of their own key workers to protect our parks.
Jonathan Bartley is co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
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