A friend writes to me from Italy overnight. Like the rest of the country she is in compulsory lock-down, confined to her home apart from occasional trips for groceries and medicines. She writes: ‘Walking and cycling is what I miss most.’
These desires are basic, elemental and intrinsic to daily life. Until very recently we took them for granted and our ability to walk to the shops, the café, the park, to all the places people gather, the places we love most. But even the simplest desires are not so simple anymore.
Many sporting facilities are now closed, and Planning Minister Rob Stokes warned our parks and gardens may be shut if we don’t respect social distancing guidelines.
It’s a truism that we often only begin to value things when they are taken away. As the days tick by we’re realising many of things that bring joy and meaning to our lives -through their restriction or indeed absence now - can never be taken for granted.
Our citizen right of access to public space is one such thing. COVID-19 is testing us and making us think, underscoring the value of our access to quality public space in our cities, our towns, our world. We must remember this feeling of restriction and loss and use it to champion the power of access to public space for all.
We are a nation graced with magnificent public space and freedom to use it. Our coastline, parks, gardens, sporting fields, libraries, museums, waterways, town squares, showgrounds and main streets are the places where we are often happiest, places where we connect with friends and family, where we relax, where we are uplifted.
Equally they are places where exciting things happen, where we are moved by theatre and performance, where we connect with nature or where we go to reenergise. They’re where we walk our dogs, we take our children to play, we play and watch sport, bushwalk, where we see art that makes us think and lifts our spirit or where we borrow books to feed our love of reading. They are the places where we feel we belong. Equally, they are places where we seek peace and solitude from the world.
Access to quality public space benefits health and well-being. Evidence tells us people who live near a park, a beach or a forest are healthier and happier than those remote from them. And the ‘Greater Sydney Outdoors Survey’ in 2019 confirmed that Sydneysiders love the outdoors. Whether it’s experiencing the outdoors on foot, going for runs or enjoying long hikes and taking in the view on leisurely strolls, we love to come together in our public spaces.
Water is important to us all too. We really love being in it, around it and being around each other. Our research showed we spend time in Sydney's public spaces communally with friends, family and our dogs.
That’s why parks are being so heavily used now. If we are cut off from these and other public pleasures our health and happiness will suffer. This is why we need everyone to respect the rules to use public space with care and common sense; only exercise solo or in groups of two and maintain 1.5 metres physical distance from each other.
Today, let’s remember this thirst for public space, this hunger for connection these free, open and publicly accessible places bring to our everyday lives and the ways we love to use public space together.
My daily ventures to my loved local public space, the Cooks River, confirm why these places matter. I witness people of all ages and abilities venturing out, people I’ve never seen there before walking, jogging, pushing prams or greeting each other.
So when we recover from today’s immediate pressures, let’s ensure we value and treasure our public spaces, realising their power and attachment as places we love in our lives, and work together to protect and improve them.
Dr Caroline Butler-Bowdon
Executive Director, Public Spaces, Department of Planning, Industry & Environment