By Chloe Beckett

WHEN lockdown was announced on March 23, few imagined the degree to which life would change. Six months on, we are acclimatising to a world of narrower horizons – where our own back gardens (for those fortunate to have them) have become our social stomping grounds, and local parks our stay-cation destinations. Our relationship with our surroundings is changing, and our connection to nature is at the heart of this.

We recently collaborated with the University of Dundee on a report, The Nature of Communities, which details not only the benefits that individuals stand to gain from exposure to nature, but also the benefits for whole communities. The report finds that green spaces provide environments for coming together, socialising and collective enjoyment. Through a sense of shared appreciation and responsibility, nature can be the glue that holds communities together.

This is particularly true of our situation today. In lieu of pubs, cinemas and shops, we’ve learned to entertain ourselves in the Great Outdoors. And now that we’re once again facing restrictions on gathering indoors, we’re finding ever more creative ways to spend time with loved ones outside of the home.

As the report finds, our relationship with nature is inextricably linked with our collective wellbeing. Contact with nature can boost mental and physical health, and is often a unique, personal experience. In children, exposure to nature can positively impact quality of life in later years. For teenagers, it can instil a sense of responsibility and ownership. And for older people, nature encourages physical activity, social connections, alleviates loneliness, and provides a sense of purpose.

Of course, not everyone has a universally positive view of nature, but the report makes clear that access to green spaces provides communities with an extra facet to wellbeing, one that cannot be recreated in the built environment.

Covid has provided us with a unique opportunity to check in on our relationship with nature, but it has also exposed a few red flags. Our renewed dependence on disposable cups, shopping bags and face masks reveals a worrying fickleness when it comes to protecting the environment. And more worrying still, Covid has laid to bare vast disparities in access to nature across the UK, a problem the report describes as “ecological inequality”.

While those with access to private gardens or local green spaces can continue to enjoy the outdoors, those in inner cities or deprived areas have not been so lucky. During lockdown, whole communities have been ecologically disenfranchised, and this should be deeply concerning to any planner or developer in the present day.

Indeed, as we look optimistically towards a post-Covid future, the onus of green access may very well rest on the shoulders of tomorrow’s place-makers.

As new homes and places are created, towns expand, and commercial industries reboot, how do we keep nature at their heart? And what could developers be doing now to ensure equal access to nature in the future? The answers may not be simple, but they present an exciting opportunity to reframe the way we approach placemaking, and change the way we view our surroundings.

For all of its horrors, Covid has opened our eyes to the benefits of being in and around nature. It is now imperative that we remember these lessons; cherishing the green spaces we have, and building greenery into our future.

Chloe Beckett is Senior Strategist at Hunter Design