How much fresh air do we deserve during the coronavirus lockdown? The failure of some park visitors to stop flouting social distancing rules has sparked an increasingly bitter debate about access to open space – and whether the British public can be trusted to act responsibly when they head outdoors.
Photos of busy-looking parks filled with sunbathers in recent days have provoked fury from those keen to police all unnecessary activity as the pandemic continues.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has suggested that if people continue to break rules – one form of fitness a day while staying at least two metres from others – then all outdoor exercise could be banned and park gates closed.
Others are sympathetic to the flight to green spaces, pointing out that millions people don’t have the luxury of a back garden or a home gym. For many living in cramped accommodation, getting out to park has proved a godsend over the past three weeks.
Gary, 40, suffers from chronic asthma so he is staying inside his small one-bedroom flat overlooking the London Fields park in Hackney as much as possible. Taking an early morning walk in the park with his two dogs, Sid and Chaplin, has become one of the best moments of the day.
“I would be an absolutely nightmare if we couldn’t get out at all,” he tells The Independent. “They just wouldn’t be able to burn off all that energy. It makes a massive difference to me too. I think getting outside, just for a bit, is keeping a lot of us sane right now. I’m not sure what I do otherwise.
“There are people around here with babies and young children – it would be unfair for them to have to stay inside because a few people aren’t doing what they’re supposed to,” he adds.
The discussion has been most fierce in dense urban areas like London. Lambeth Council ordered Brockwell Park to shut on Sunday after police found too many people lying out or gathering in large groups. It follows similar brief closures of green spaces by authorities in Tower Hamlets and Hammersmith and Fulham.
“It we be disastrous if parks closed,” says Kevin Flemen, the secretary of the London Fields User Group. “Thankfully Hackney Council haven’t joined the knee-jerk reaction. There’s so many people living in high-density housing around here who don’t have gardens or balconies or any kind of shared spaces.”
“The online discussion has turned into a bun fight – there’s a lot quite nasty stuff about blaming hipsters, or the joggers, or bigger families, or people of a certain age. It’s unnecessary. You can deal with the worst offenders, and the rest is about encouraging sensible behaviour.”
Linda Bauld, professor of public health at University of Edinburgh, says people should certainly be following the social distancing rules. Yet she believes closing parks “wouldn’t be well-justified on scientific grounds”.
“There are a lot of negative implications for a physical and mental health if people can’t get out outdoors to exercise,” she says. “A lot of people just don’t have room to turn their living spaces into home gyms.”
Phineas Harper, a writer on architecture and the incoming director of Open City organisation, thinks a lot of the long-lens photos taken of park visitors are “making people who are far apart appear to be almost tripping over each other” – describing it as “cynical and deceptive”.
“It’s been a bit trumped up,” he tells The Independent. “There is something pretty distasteful about seeing well-off people and parts of the media sneering and trying to publicly shame poorer people for spending time in parks.”
Labour MP Harriet Harman has suggested local authorities organise a rota system, so a particular group of streets could be assigned access to the park at certain times of the day.
Green MP Caroline Lucas is less keen on bringing in restrictions. She has backed a campaign to open up private golf courses, closed during the lockdown, for walking, running and cycling.
Guy Shrubsole, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, thinks it’s the perfect solution. He points out there are 300,000 acres of land taken up by golf courses across the UK.
“Instead of closing public parks during coronavirus, we should be opening up private green spaces, he says. “So mean there’s more room for everyone to exercise safely.”