by Katie McClymont…..
Strange times we are in. Somewhere in the midst of transitioning to online teaching (or at least attempting to- I’ll leave it up to my students to be the judge of how successful this has been), home-schooling three children, standing in busy yet spacious queues for fruit, veg, bread, milk and other necessary elements of daily fuel – my mind has drifted to what all this means to us as planning researchers and educators. Aside from the practicalities of Zoom meetings, Skype for interviews and tutorials via blackboard, what things should we be offering comment on, and what things should we be reassessing ourselves?
The first is about housing and the idea of home. The message of ‘stay at home’ is loud and clear, but the implications of this vary vastly between households. The media has noted efforts to find accommodation for rough sleepers (BBC, 2020) and Arwa Mahdawi (2020) has eloquently written about the increasing risks of domestic violence, and for those for whom ‘home’ does not equate with safe space. It is right that these immediate concerns are at the forefront of policy responses, but there are longer-term, less-apparent issues for some ‘staying at home’. This includes those in overcrowded, unsatisfactory housing, with poor access to outdoor space, or even natural light. With public playgrounds now closed, those in social housing denied access to purportedly private gardens seem even more unfairly treated than before (Grant, 2019a and b). Moreover, research revealing the shockingly poor resident units developed under relaxations in change of use for offices showcases what ‘home’ will be for some people (Clifford et al, 2018). Units, some as small as 13 square metres (Park, 2019) and some without windows cannot be seen as fit places to be ‘locked-down’ within. This is only one part of the issues- including poor ventilation and exposure to excessive noise- with much contemporary housing as highlighted by the TCPA within their healthy homes campaign (Howie, 2019). Now, more than ever, (staying at) home should evoke safety, security and some comfort- for all of us as we all share the restrictions imposed for the national good. At its core, planning is premised in making decisions for collective interests- now is a time which acutely demonstrates how far from acceptable some of these decisions have been.
This leads me to think further about public and community spaces, and their value. Aside from fears for health and fears of uncertainty, the current pandemic has provoked disquiet through the myriad impacts of ‘social distancing’. As much as missing the pub, the theatre, attending football matches and swimming in public pools, the removal of spaces for incidental ‘encounters’ with others- in libraries, cafes, the (school and public) playground changes the emotional pattern of daily life. It is too soon to know, personally or more widely, what the impact of these changes with be, but the removal of such ‘common’ places- or social infrastructure as Eric Klinsberg (2018) articulately defines- from everyday life, does offer a unique vantage point to reflect on their role. As planners, we do not often or readily articulate the value of such places: our language for the importance of community, public, semi-public spaces is under-developed. What is the difference between a church hall and community music venue? Does it matter who owns it? Who uses it? How does this vary between different setting- urban, rural, wealthy, mobile, declining, aging and all the other ways we are able to define an area?
Planning has a role in offering hope in the dark times: hope not for a return to business as usual, but hope for a better, shared future: one in which home can be a sanctuary supported by resilient and well-understood social infrastructure. Moreover, these quick comments are only a beginning. Can we emerge from this current crisis with renewed and refreshed ideas about the decline of the high street as a social space with increased online shopping, changes to our daily travel patterns which can minimise pollution and increase air quality (one silver lining of the current situation) as well as the key challenge of our generation: taking collective and state action to tackle climate change?
BBC (2020) Coronavirus: All rough sleepers in England ‘to be housed’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-52063939 27th March 2020
Clifford, B, Firm, J, Livingstone, N and Canelas, P (2018) Assessing the impacts of extending permitted development rights to office-to-residential change of use in England, RICS Research Trust, available at https://www.rics.org/globalassets/rics-website/media/knowledge/research/research-reports/assessing-the-impacts-of-extending-permitted-development-rights-to-office-to-residential-change-of-use-in-england-rics.pdf
Grant, H. (2019a) Disabled children among social tenants blocked from communal gardens, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/sep/27/disabled-children-among-social-tenants-blocked-from-communal-gardens 27th September 2019
Grant, H. (2019b) Too poor to play: children in social housing blocked from communal playground https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/mar/25/too-poor-to-play-children-in-social-housing-blocked-from-communal-playground 25 March 2019
Howie, F. (2019) Why we need a healthy homes act, Town and Country Planning, 88(7), pp266-267
Klinenberg, E. (2018) Palaces for the People: How to build a more equal and united society, London, The Bodley Head
Mahdawi, A (2020) For some people, social distancing means being trapped indoors with an abuser https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/21/coronavirus-domestic-violence-week-in-patriarchy 21st March 2020
Park, J (2019) Housing and the importance of liveable space, Town and Country Planning, 88(7), pp280-284