Isolation | Sarah Featherstone
Monday 27 April 2020
“The biggest problem in the world is isolation and disconnectedness - socially and physically.”
This is a quote from George Monbiot a few years ago but seems more poignant now in light of the COVID-19 crisis. It’s against this context and climate emergency that the work I’m doing with the VeloCity placemaking team rings true. Isolation in the countryside is a big issue particularly amongst the elderly, and VeloCity is a holistic vision that tackles disconnectedness and reinvigorates villages by linking them with walking and cycling routes. It’s a layered approach that takes a cluster of villages and collectively grows them so they can nurture community spirit and bring back the local shop, pubs and schools they have lost.
Whilst the COVID-19 crisis is having a devastating effect on lives and economy the long-term more catastrophic impact is climate emergency. We are living beyond the earth’s carrying capacity with the loss of precious habitats and climate change impacts. In the UK alone, 58% of all species have declined dramatically in the last 70 years and we have lost 97% of our wildflower meadows as a result of urbanisation and more intensive agricultural practices. We also see the social consequences of prioritising economic growth through concentration of wealth in cities, growing inequality, social isolation and the breakdown of social networks.
It is now quite clear that we all need to think and live differently and embrace new radical thinking in order to achieve the paradigm shifts necessary to sustain the environment. If there is anything positive coming out from this virus, it is the opportunity to see that this kind of radical change is possible and that aspects of our VeloCity vision are already being played out.
We can see this through the 5 principles set out in our Velocity manifesto:
1. people over cars - creating more sustainable movement networks
The COVID-19 lockdown has seen a radical decrease in car use and air travel, demonstrating that our over reliance on the most unsustainable and polluting forms of transport can be changed. The benefits of this decrease can also be readily witnessed, for example Stanford University has calculated that the reduction in air pollution in China caused by the current economic disruption has saved approximately 20 times more lives there than have been lost due to the infection. We also see people walking and cycling more as part of their daily lockdown exercise, which not only provides physical health benefits but also highlights that more compact and walkable spaces can decrease the physical isolation created by dispersed car orientated planning.
2. connected not isolated - linking villages with shared resources to benefit all
Physical isolation is a big issue in the countryside particularly for the aging population. However during COVID-19 we have seen social distancing bring forward positive aspects with people are interacting with their families and communities more than before. New ways for social gathering are possible through digital and online communications, which for rural communities are an essential lifeline to building stronger communities. We are seeing communities pull together with volunteer networks and greater support of local supply chains which has got to be good for revitalising the local economy and the environment.
3. compact not sprawl - keeping the special character of our villages
Now more than ever we need to be light footed and agile when creating new homes. Fears that high density living has helped spread the virus can not be a reason to avoid densification - far bigger threats such as population growth have contributed to this pandemic. Low density sprawl is particularly prevalent in rural areas and if we are to respond to the environment and climate crisis we need to stop this kind of growth and build more compactly to avoid loss of natural habitat area.
4. opportunity over decline – providing new places to live and work
Before the virus we already saw trends towards flexible working with an estimated 20-25% of the workforce comprising home-workers, many living in the countryside. This will likely accelerate following the pandemic and help invigorate villages, creating a need for new places to meet and share resources. The rise of co-working/ shared spaces will see traditional offices decrease in size offering local businesses significant savings on rent and travel.
5. resilient not fragile - promoting sustainable environments, health and well-being
Post COVID-19 we need to create a more balanced eco-system that doesn’t prioritise economics and GDP over social and environmental value. We need a much fairer distribution where resilience will become key over efficiency. This is likely the end of economic growth as we know it - the Scottish government and Glasgow are deleting ‘growth’ and replacing with ‘thrive’, Oslo Architecture Triennale’s theme was Degrowth and Amsterdam have introduced doughnut economics as its post COVID-19 plan.
As Jeremy Till said in his talk last week on Architecture after Architecture, the virus is making us prioritise the value of what people do over the value of their market worth.
Sarah Featherstone words and images
The Architecture Club member