The global pandemic raises some important questions about the links between public health and planning.
With whole countries shut down and a soaring death toll, there are signs that it will not be long before a debate about the trade offs between health and economies becomes heated. At the moment, the professional body in the UK, the Royal Town Planning Institute, seems to be focusing only on the procedural aspects of planning – how to keep development going, e.g. by extending the duration of planning permissions or by delegating more decisions on applications to officers. For example here in Scotland, where work on non-National Health Service construction sites has been halted, the RTPI has welcomed such measures from the Scottish Government. In other words the response is reactive and focused on the economy side of the impending debate, and accepting,for example, the (temporary) need to reduce public engagement in development decisions. While this short-term focus is understandable, not least because of the pace at which change is happening, a different and more strategic narrative is also needed urgently.
A Trojan Horse?
Nobody now doubts that the economic impact of the virus will be severe, nationally and globally. It will be felt by governments and by businesses and by ordinary people. I anticipate that the response will be a strong push to further weaken the regulatory role of planning here and elsewhere. To help economic and fiscal recovery, the temporary measures could well be extended. In a scorched employment landscape, why hold back job creation? If the duration of a planning permission can be extended in emergency, why not continue that for the period of recovery, and into normal times? If more delegation to officers is a way to keep the system working now, why not retain it to help the country “get back on its feet”, and then, with enthusiastic support from the industry, continue to reap the benefits of such arrangements long term? The stop-gap could become a Trojan Horse. The fundamental point is that the regulatory side of planning is more potent in the good times and good places: when and where there is pressure for development. Where the problem is not development but disinvestment and lack of development, as will be the case for some time to come, then the regulatory side is less likely to scrutinise what is on offer, and more likely to welcome it with open arms.
Pressure to get “back to growth” as quickly as possible, will enable the forging of a political alliance between business and those millions of people economically damaged by the lock down. The climate emergency, which had gained political traction in 2019, will be put on the back burner, an appropriate analogy. So when it comes to weighing climate response policies against jobs and recovery, the environment could well lose out. Similarly, the attempts of planners to design cities in ways that support public transport risk being set back. Crowded buses and trains will be imprinted in the public mind with images of contagion and risk, compared to the perceived self-contained safety of a car journey. President Trump has used the CV19 situation to relax emission standards for new vehicles in the expectation that this will reduce prices and boost sales.
Planning and public health
Even for planning to survive in polities that are already deeply structured by the ideology and practices of market superiority, a reconnection of planning to public health is essential. As nobody teaches much planning history any more (no time for it in the one-year courses here in UK), it may be helpful to remind people of the ways that past crises shaped the scope and practice of urban planning. The cholera epidemic of 1848 led to the first Public Health Act in the UK. The Boer War exposed the scale of poor health amongst urban recruits and influenced the passing of the first Town Planning legislation in 1909. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 was followed by a new emphasis on the need for public open space in housing areas. World War II led to the 1947 Planning Act. Through all these measures there ran an understanding that unregulated market forces could be a threat to public health, and that urban planning and design were forms of preventative public health action.
So planners should once again be making the case that free access to public open space is a public health and well-being issue. This matters because one of the intentions of austerity (which may well be re-heated and served again after the crisis) was to shift such spaces, along with other public assets and services, into revenue-generating private ownership and management, available at market cost. One lesson from the confinement enforced by CV19 is that there must be much more focus on inequalities in access to space, both inside the house and outside it. Let’s restate the case for better minimum space standards in housing, and for pocket parks in crowded neighbourhoods, along with green corridors connecting those places. We also need to celebrate the dramatic improvements in air quality that travel restrictions have delivered, and point to ways to sustain those health benefits by a combination of shifting travel modes through homeworking and mixed uses, as well as measures to reduce emissions. Children have been particularly affected by the lockdown, missing schooling, outdoor play and meeting friends. Let’s look again at the environment around the home and ensure that it works for all.
A global challenge needs a global response
The virus threatens all countries, but rich countries, even ones that have deliberately under-invested in public health, are better placed to cope than are the poorer countries. Specifically we know that for the last two decades and more most development in most rapidly urbanising countries has been unplanned. This means that for billions the home is small, overcrowded, and lacks basic services, a situation making social distancing and regular hand washing impossible. The livelihoods of many depend on face to face delivery of services – hair dressing, hawking etc. One positive point though is that the demographic profile of informal urban settlements tends to be younger than average, and so more victims may be able to shake off the disease and hopefully gain some immunity. Vast refugee camps are another significant component of the settlement structure in many parts of the world, though they attract little attention from the professional planning community. Here again the living environment is one that will facilitate transmission of contagious diseases. Even in rich countries like the USA, there is evidence that the poor are disproportionately at risk to succombing to CV19.
The climate emergency has been pushed into the background in all this, but has not gone away. Like other environmental professions, planners will need to restate the case for active adaptation and mitigation strategies, both locally and globally. Lessons from the global pandemic need to be learned and connected to a global climate strategy. Ideally, the devastation wreaked by CV19 will trigger a truely global response, with strengthened international cooperation and multilateral agencies, as happened after 1945. However, this cannot be taken for granted. Just as the virus has reached across the planet. so do the consequences of the failure to control the growth of carbon emissions. Business as usual has been exposed as a short-sighted startegy for dealing with the emergency when it comes. The virtues of precaution and prevention need to be proclaimed, rather than risk taking. The value of experts has suddenly been rediscovered, even if they cannot provide unanimous and simple answers.
Unless nations can co-operate, all of them are vulnerable, whether to destructive changes in climate or to viral pandemics: each of these twin apocalyptic threats could feed off each other. As with the climate emergency, cities are both the core of the pandemic problem but also the basis for solutions. In seeking to bring together the climate emergency, public health and planning, there are lessons from poorer countries that could be adapted and transferred. Use local materials in buldings; promote local services and markets; build disaster risk mitigation into planning strategies; ensure an infrastructure-led approach to development; look to the potential of urban agriculture and local food networks, to give a few examples. Urban and regional planning should be about ensuring that the basic needs of all are met. We follow in the footsteps of people who dared to believe that by planning human settlements it was possible to conserve essential natural and cultural resources, while improving the health of the poorest members of society, and that such outcomes benefit that society as a whole. We need to believe that again.