Looking to a greener future for our towns and cities

The coronavirus pandemic has caused us all to rethink how we carry out our day-to-day lives; from how we move around, how we work, and the places we visit. It’s also reminded us about the things most important to us too.

The experience of lockdown and social distancing has given us all a profound appreciation for green spaces, which have offered us somewhere to enjoy the great outdoors, breath in fresh air, and connect with nature – all things that are important for our physical and mental wellbeing.

We’ve seen, first hand, what a vital resource Newcastle’s parks, allotments and green spaces have been during the pandemic. At a time when we’ve all been struggling with the scale and magnitude of the crisis, we’ve been able to find solace in nature.

We’ve also found joy in simple things like walking and cycling too, embracing sustainable forms of transport that protect our environment.

As we emerge from lockdown and begin a ‘new normal’, how can we make sure more of the positive societal changes we’ve seen in recent weeks – like our reconnection with nature and our love of active travel – become more commonplace in our lives?

Imagine walking through your city centre and seeing trees lining the streets instead of cars. Think what it would be like to cycle along dedicated bike paths, or walk along traffic free streets. In Newcastle upon Tyne, that might happen sooner than you think.

Newcastle City Council is leading the charge in seeing the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to change our cities for the better. Council leaders are proposing sweeping changes to the city centre that would see more provision for walkers and cyclists, and the introduction of pocket parks. The Council’s focus on active travel would see dedicated bike lanes and wider pavements replace existing on-street parking.

The plans pose an interesting question. Why should nature be confined to our parks and green spaces? Why can’t it be spread throughout our towns and cities? We need a change in thinking that sees our urban parks not as the last bastion of green space in built-up areas, but as a springboard to re-wild the places we live and work.

Wouldn’t it be great to see windowsill planters in office buildings, hanging baskets on lampposts, and wild flower verges on our streets. Communities could reclaim disused or neglected areas where they live and revive them with planting and trees. Bringing nature into our everyday lives doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive, we can all play a part and we can all make a big difference.

City parks are a great example of how our urban centres can be a place where nature thrives, and a place where people can experience the health and wellbeing benefits that come from being surrounded by trees, plants, flowers and wildlife.

Newcastle’s plans feature all the principals of good green infrastructure planning. Not only is it good for people’s health and wellbeing, it’s also good for the public purse too.

The World Economic Forum reported that it does indeed pay for cities to be green when it comes to securing inward investment. Firms want to be based in destinations that are attractive to employees, both in terms of their physical health and quality of life. It’s also good for a business’ reputation to be in a city that has long-term ambitions to be cleaner and greener.

Newcastle is in the very early stages of developing a campaign to become the UK’s next National Park City. What a fantastic demonstration of our commitment to the cause if we could green our city centre, provide dedicated spaces for cyclists and walkers, and not see our ‘new normal’ as a negative, but a unique, once in a lifetime opportunity, to introduce nature into every part of our lives.

James Cross is CEO of Urban Green Newcastle, the charity that manages Newcastle’s parks and allotments, and a leader of the Newcastle National Park City campaign.