The COVID-19 crisis in 2020 is reshaping the human-nature relationship in the city. Yet this current situation also intensifies and draws attention to long-standing debates in urban planning about the provision of greenspaces. Whilst we need social distancing to reduce virus transmission, the need to access greenspaces, whether physically or even only visually, becomes vital to maintain citizens’ psychological well-being. In addition to health benefits, the value of community gardens enhancing food security and fostering social resilience via collective activities in a shared space is also emphasised amid the pandemic. All of these factors remind us that greenspaces are not something ‘nice to have’, but rather are a ‘must have’ in our cities to help urban dwellers tackle a breadth of social and environmental challenges.
Unlike other seasonal diseases, COVID-19 does not naturally vanish with summer heat. The recurrence of the pandemic outbreak, together with record-breaking high temperatures this summer, imposed dual threats on public health and placed a heavy burden on the health system. Recent studies have found that hot spots of COVID 19 cases are highly overlapped with socio-economically vulnerable populations, who are also susceptible to heatwaves in cities. This may be attributable to the legacy of segregation in past urban plans, which unfairly distributed public facilities and greenspaces which provide important cooling benefits. Whilst not all countries have histories of planned socio-economic segregation that are as apparent as they are in South Africa, for example, spatial inequality is commonly observed across cities in different countries due to intended or unintended land use decisions.
For example, a UK study pointed out that those living in the least-deprived areas have the largest private green space. This ‘luxury effect’ has also been observed in Taipei City in our previous studies, which show that rich neighborhoods tend to enjoy greater greenspace coherence in their surroundings. Neighbourhoods that are short of greenspaces are often associated with socially and economically deprived areas in a city, which puts these urban communities at greater risk during both public health and heatwave crises. Indeed, the current health crisis allows us to examine impacts and responses from different planning philosophies. A lot of ongoing discussions and initiatives have focused on issues, such as urban density, layout, greenery, and walkability, which highlight accessibility to open (green) spaces by foot and bicycle and the allocation of essential public services near to residents (e.g. Paris’s 15-Minute City). These discussions can be a catalyst for us to transform cities into more just, resilient, and healthier places to live.
However, Taiwan’s success in containing the pandemic might limit the chances to transform its greenspace planning. In Taiwan, greenspace provision is a part of the urban land use plan, which only considers the overall greenspace coverage of the city and the minimum size of small parks. Unfortunately, after many years there is still no explicit consideration of accessibility in Taiwan’s current greenspace standards. Although there is a relatively loose requirement of quantifiable standards in the urban plan, Taiwanese cities are rarely able to meet the goal, since other land uses are often prioritized. Another problem is that the authorities of parks and greenspaces are often placed as a secondary institute in the city government. As we have argued in our research previously, these issues make it harder to take proactive actions to systematically determine greenspace configuration, and understand their implications for social equity and for the benefits people receive from nature, at an earlier stage of urban planning process. Although recent urban farming initiatives, such as the Garden City programme in Taipei City and Edible Landscape in New Taipei City, have rapidly created hundreds of accessible greenspaces in cities, they are established outside cities’ urban plans on temporarily available lands. As a result, they are subject to intense development pressure and could vanish after a while. It is therefore questionable whether Taiwanese cities will be able to provide equitable benefits via greenspaces if we also face a lockdown.