Beccy Whittle reflects on the role of green spaces and community gardens during the coronavirus pandemic.

With so much being written about coronavirus I wanted to pick up on a topic that hasn’t been discussed much yet. Quite rightly, everyone is currently focusing on immediate questions such as protecting people’s health and livelihoods, all of which is vitally important since we already know that this virus is most definitely selective in terms of who is worst affected. But, since it looks like the crisis is going to be with us for a while, I’m starting to reflect a bit more on what this might mean for us in the longer term and, for me, this means thinking about greenspace and how we might use it.

Like almost everything else in this crisis, I’m raising questions rather than ‘answers’ – how could there be any ‘answers’ for something as complex and dynamic as this? However, I hope that writing this piece will encourage some of you to share your thoughts in the spirit that the only way we’re going to get through this is by combining our collective care and wisdom. I’m really looking forward to being part of this discussion.

I started thinking about corona and greenspace for a couple of reasons: firstly, my household has been self isolating since the end of last week when we realised that we probably had the virus. In amidst all the anxiety of this realisation – not least the fear that we may have unintentionally spread it to others before we knew – there was one major consolation: we have a garden. Over the past few days we have clung onto it like a lifeline. We’ve sat in it, played in it, carved in it, cooked in it (we had an impromptu campfire at my son’s request the other day), and started work on a new raised bed. All these things have been hugely important to our physical and mental health – watching nature and the emerging signs of spring, together with the practical satisfaction of being able to do something constructive and nurturing have reassured me that somehow, someday, everything will be all right, even if I can’t see it yet. If I hadn’t had the garden, I know I would have really struggled. This is one reason why I think it’s going to be so important to think about greenspace in the longer term as we go through this crisis.

For those who don’t have access to a garden, being able to get out and about into allotments, public parks and community gardens seems like it could be hugely important, both physically and mentally. But clearly there are some questions on how we do this safely, given that we’re being advised towards social distancing as much as possible. This is something I’m particularly concerned about as I help to run a community garden. In the light of advice about social distancing, should we cancel or postpone all planned events and courses? Or is it ok to go ahead with some added safety precautions?

Clearly very little is known about Covid-19 as it’s a new virus but it seems many scientists are suggesting that there are some general principles that we can infer, some of which may be really relevant to those who work outside. For example, it’s likely that the virus won’t live for very long outside, compared to in a centrally heated office or train carriage. Equally, it’s probably fair to say that most communal gardening/outdoor craft activities involve a reasonably natural element of social distancing anyway on the basis that you tend to give someone wielding a spade or a carving knife a bit of space – certainly the 2m distance that I’ve seen recommended should be fairly easily achievable. And you can still have a decent chat and social experience with someone, even if they are 2m away.

Brew breaks are another matter, of course, since that’s when everyone tends to stand closer and put their hands in the same biscuit tin. But again, perhaps people could be encouraged to bring their own snacks/drinks so there’s no touching of shared surfaces? And all used gardening gloves could be taken home and washed at the end of sessions? Or just left out in the cold for a few hours?

Clearly it’s a different matter if someone is ill themselves or has a household member who is. In those cases, it would make sense for them to stay away for the recommended 14 days. But for otherwise healthy adults with no symptoms, I’m thinking the above could be acceptable, right?

They would provide a way of ensuring we get to keep each other safe whilst still continuing to nourish connections with each other and with nature.

If we agree with these principles then perhaps it’s also helpful to think about other ways in which we could use our potential connections to the natural world to help.

Many people’s lives are about to change dramatically and we’re going to have to dramatically rethink the ways in which we socialise, shop and work. Are there ways in which a new connection with outdoor spaces could help us to safely meet those needs in other ways? For example, amongst the plethora of online meetings now taking place, could face-to-face meetings in the fresh air (weather permitting, of course?) be another safe option for low risk groups?

And could we think about how to support more vulnerable residents (who have been advised not to go out) in safely accessing some forms of greenspace? Garden share schemes, for example?

I appreciate that the science is uncertain but maybe just having an open and honest discussion with people about the potential for safe use of outdoor space is important.

And what about kids and public play areas? While I don’t want to bother the chief medical officer with what might seem like trivial questions, I think that, if we are truly in this for the long term, as he suggests, it’s really important to start thinking about these things sooner rather than later.

In a nutshell, Covid-19 has taught me that the natural world really can be a lifeline in times like these and that this poses both challenges and opportunities. How can we ensure that everyone has access to some form of greenspace, regardless of age, income or circumstance?

In the longer-term, how can we enhance the capacity of our greenspaces to provide us with the kinds of things that we need to flourish on this planet – including food, medicine, social and recreational opportunities?

When there are so many places we can’t go, it’s probably more vital than ever to be able to go outside, where we can do so safely….

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