The pandemic has highlighted the restorative power of nature, especially in cities; as lockdown eased, people cooped up without outdoor space flocked to public parks. Images of these overcrowded urban oases were a stark reminder of the pressure on green space. But how do you create more green space in a densely populated city? What if buildings were designed and constructed to incorporate greenery rather than requiring it to be ripped up? Such ecologically sound thinking is already evident. For instance, architect Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale apartments in Milan, incorporates over 800 trees as part of the building design. Other architects are following similar paths across the world from Madrid to Nanjing in China and Utrecht in Holland.
These buildings undoubtedly have a wow factor right now, but for densely populated cities in the future to be habitable, designs like these that help to reverse CO2 levels need to become less of a novelty. It’s not just buildings themselves that need to include plants and trees in the design. What open spaces there are within a metropolis need to be reassessed. Sadly, not all cities around the world are succeeding in maintaining their canopy cover.
However, progress is at last being seen in European cities. Many are accepting that for too long the car has been at the centre of urban planning – the response has been to cultivate more tree-lined streets, urban groves and increase tree planting in parks and public areas. Barcelona, for example, has created a Green Infrastructure and Biodiversity Plan, where green corridors connect green urban spaces such as forests, parks and vegetable gardens.
Reversing the damage done to the environment over the last 100 years will require major changes in how we use and produce energy; how we recycle goods and conserve our resources. Success depends on a multiple of factors and tree planting designed to help our cities breathe, is one of them.
Two wheels good
One of the results of lockdown has been a cycling revolution. With main roads and country lanes largely free of traffic, the temptation to get on the saddle for socially distanced exercise or to commute to work, has proved strong. And smog-free photographs of Indian and Chinese cities have further emphasised the benefits of reducing traffic.
According to the European Cyclists Federation (ECF), national and local governments in the UK and across Europe have been investing in active travel both to aid social distancing and to encourage people to get around other than by public transport or in cars.
Statistics from the ECF show that cities including Rome, Bologna, Lisbon and Paris lead the way in terms of announced funding for new bike lanes – Rome alone has pledged to provide an extra 150km. Other cities including London, Berlin and Barcelona top the list of those that have already implemented bike lane routes. In theory, the more bike lanes are introduced (assuming they are well-planned and positioned), the safer cyclists will feel, encouraging others to opt for the pedalled-powered option to getting around.
Reclaiming the streets
Lockdown across the world has allowed city dwellers to breathe cleaner air and escape the smoke and smog that has plagued them with ill-health for decades. Citizens from Manila and Delhi to Los Angeles have been able to experience unexpectedly expansive views across their city.
But is the will there to keep the streets clean after Covid-19 has finally passed? Certainly, there are initiatives already up and running that will continue and thereby improve inner-city air pollution.
Copenhagen and Ghent are two cities trialling initiatives to encourage citizens to leave their cars at home, from six-seater ‘minibus’ bikes for the school run, to revolutionary traffic schemes that make short car journeys impractical.
Bigger cities such as Los Angeles, long-associated with poor quality air due to traffic congestion, are also benefiting from more enlightened thinking.
Stricter environmental regulations, higher petrol standards, an upgraded public transport system and a reduced reliance on coal, have all been contributory factors to reduced CO2 levels.
Mexico City faces a huge challenge but the congested city is working hard to raise emissions standards for new vehicles and encourage the uptake of hybrid and electric vehicles. In tandem with this, it is committing new investment in the city’s metro system, eco-friendly buses and light rail.
While the pace of change in cities may not be as quick as some environmentalists would like, it appears that many pollution hotspots are at least stepping up the battle for cleaner air. Cities like Mexico City and Madrid have either restricted access to parts of the centre or made areas car-free zones altogether. Commendable though this is, we still live in a car culture meaning vested interests can use their power to reverse such measures. Momentum needs to remain with the enlightened camp.