Lockdown may soon be lifted, a welcome relief for many. But with an effective vaccine in all likelihood a year away, we're told going have to get used to a 'new normal'. So what, exactly, will the ‘new normal’ look like?
It’s quite a cursory phrase, considering the maze of complexity, compromise, make-do and mend we are now entering. When children go back to school, what will the school day look like? If it's truncated, how will that affect people's working day? Will children only be allowed to play out on their own, with their siblings, or will they be able to meet with a small circle of friends? It seems hopeful we'll soon be able to go for a long country walk, but will we be able to take a holiday this summer, if not abroad, then within the UK?
Five years ago, Cath, our Director, took part in the Natural Childhood alongside the National Trust, the NHS and the RSPB to make sure every child has the opportunity to be a bit wild, to go outside regularly to play, in their street, at school, in the local park or further afield. There was a consensus about what childhood ought to be like, built from responses to the National Trust's Natural Childhood report:
Almost every aspect of this vision will be profoundly different post-lockdown. The most familiar aspects of family life – play, friendship, learning – will alter, perhaps irrevocably.
We need space to breathe
If lockdown has shown us anything, it’s that time in outdoor green spaces can be a lifeline, especially in relation to our mental health, and particularly in cities.
We need space to walk, breathe, play and destress.
The 'ticking time bomb' of health that existed prior to the coronavirus outbreak did not suddenly stop ticking. If anything, Covid-19 has made a more urgent case for tackling the underlying factors contributing to our nations' poor physical and mental health.
Obesity and conditions such as Type II diabetes seem to be linked to higher death rates during the outbreak. Researchers are also taking seriously the correlation between higher death rates and air pollution, given that respiratory conditions are more prevalent urban areas. In countries that haven’t allowed children out to play during lockdown, the discussion is now about dealing with the potential trauma that may have engendered. Researchers within the UK are also assessing how the lockdown has affected children's mental health (we've included a link to a survey at the end of this blog, please help with this if you can).
Safer roads = more walking and cycling
The health issues caused by our reliance on cars have not disappeared. Similarly the benefits of car-free solutions remain, tangibly within reach - and there may be no better time to shift behaviours to make a more positive post-lockdown world.
This week, Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary hinted that active travel, walking and cycling, may be key to government thinking about how we can get Britain moving again (without offering any detail as how this might happen).
Unfortunately, the pressure to jumpstart the economy could instantly lead to more traffic on the roads. A report in the Sunday Times estimates that capacity on trains could be reduced by as much as 85% if social distancing guidelines are observed, and many commuters may see their car as the only option to get to work. Home working for some could lead to a reduction in rush-hour traffic, but local authorities and national government need to follow through on promised investment in order for more people to cycle or walk as a first option.
Squeezing car-use in cities may be the only option if social distancing guidelines remain. In many places, there simply isn't enough space to maintain the requisite 2m from fellow pedestrians. It seems that city leaders are alive to the fact - as a recent online summit highlighted. In New York, up to 100 miles of streets are being earmarked for 'socially responsible recreation'. In California, 75 miles of streets are being made pedestrian-only. In London, boroughs are looking at ways to ease pedestrian congestion – for example introducing measures to widen pavements at 'social congestion' hotspots.
Outdoor learning and play
One of the most urgent questions is how we can bring back some sense of ‘normality’ to children’s play. Although children are remarkably resilient, we don’t yet know the effect of months without face-to-face contact with friendship groups, rough and tumble, and unregulated time outdoors.
It seems certain that over next couple of months at least some children will return to school. Most proposals involve some element of social distancing, or potentially splitting the school day so that some pupils attend in the morning and some in the afternoon. How the latter will have an impact on parents' working day remains to be seen. But one thing that homeschooling will have shown parents (if they didn't already know) is that play and socialisation is critical for children - and it can be traumatising when children are unable to get outside with their friends.
If people continue to flock to parks and local green spaces on sunny days, making effective social distancing nigh on impossible, some parents may see screen time as a less risky option for children's play. So making spaces where children can play outside safely should be a priority.
What if... we made green space a priority?
One thing we can be sure about the ‘new normal’ is that extreme pressure will be put on local government budgets. Funding which was previously earmarked for greening and humanising the urban environment will be in the frame, as local authorities try to plug funding gaps for core services.
But is this the point where we should be re-imagining what we count as a 'core service'? The lack of access to green space caused problems in the very first weeks of lockdown, when some Councils were obliged to close public parks due to overcrowding. Thankfully the decisions were later revoked – although there are still clearly tensions around enforcing compliance to social distancing guidelines.
In this light, access to green space, particularly within cities, could, perhaps should, be considered on a par with public amenities such as water, power and transport, making funding more of a priority.
If financial support is not forthcoming, it may still be possible to catalyse change through grassroots action, something which happened through the London National Park City campaign. Plenty of changes can happen without huge buckets of cash, but it will require bold and imaginative thinking by policy makers.
Organisations such as Living Streets have been campaigning for years to allow residents to convert parking bays to create micro public gardens. Hackney campaigner Brenda Puech persuaded the Council to modify local planning guidance to allow for 15 parklets to appear across the borough: ‘We make walking, cycling and playing outdoors difficult and unattractive… Public spaces in cities and kerbsides should be people, not just for storage of private, stationary metal boxes.’
What if... lockdown precipitated long-term change?
The lockdown has massively disrupted our way of life. Any complacency we may have felt around our health and wellbeing, job security, and the rhythms and systems of the working and learning day, has been shaken. It has also been a sharp reminder (to anyone who needed reminding) of the deep-rooted inequity within our society.
Over the coming months, we will be walking into a new world. But as we recover and assess the fallout, there is an opportunity here to shape things for the better.
Can you help?
Can you and your children complete this survey?
Dr. Helen Dodd of the University of Reading is working on two studies that are tracking children’s mental health during lockdown. The aim is to work out what children/families are struggling with the most and what help they might need.
One of the studies is for 2-4 year olds, the other is school age up to GCSE. Both focused on UK children. The school-age study already has several thousand families taking part and we’re aiming for 10,000+. The preschool study has only been launched this week and already has 250+ families enrolled.
Please can you help Helen and the team by sharing online and if appropriate, filling in the surveys?
2-4 year old children:
School-age children (up to 16):