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Public Open Space in a Post-COVID World

By Carine Lai, researcher, WYNG Foundation

When Instagram Pier was closed without notice in March 2021, the Government said it was due to COVID-19. While some district councillors and residents suspected that the real reason for closing the pier was because of the misbehaviour of some visitors, if it was indeed closed because of COVID, the scientific justification was pretty weak. According to a metastudy in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, the disease spreads best in poorly-ventilated spaces. Less than 10% of recorded COVID-19 infections occurred outdoors, and the likelihood of transmission is 18 times higher inside than outside. Every superspreader event identified in Hong Kong occurred indoors: in bars, gyms, dance clubs, and wedding banquet halls. 


While the authorities may have been concerned about people gathering or eating without masks in public open spaces, their overall approach which saw sportsgrounds, beaches, and children’s playgrounds closed while malls and restaurants remained open, seems to have been based more on administrative convenience than big-picture risk assessment. (While there was some justification for taping off playground equipment to prevent surface transmission, scientists believe this risk is quite low.) Since Hong Kong never went into a full lockdown, once isolation fatigue set in, people flooded into shopping malls, which was even riskier; and into country parks, which for many required trips on crowded buses and trains. It arguably would have made more sense to maximise outdoor space to spread people out.   

In many global cities, strict lockdowns caused mayors to rethink the role of public open space in public health. With residents stuck working from home, people turned to neighbourhood open spaces to relax, exercise, and to meet friends and relatives in a socially distanced way. Essential workers, afraid to ride public transport, walked and cycled instead. Cities took advantage of decreased traffic to redistribute space between cars, pedestrians and cyclists.



While some of these spaces are now being put back to their original uses, others, including miles of new bike lanes throughout Europe, will be made permanent.  


Additionally, while some cities sought to use public space to alleviate the pandemic’s impact on socio-economically disadvantaged residents, this was overlooked in Hong Kong. In July 2020, social media was flooded with photos of workers squatting uncomfortably in marginal spaces when the authorities briefly tried to ban dining in restaurants at lunchtime. The ban was enacted without preparation; no temporary seats or shades were set up in advance for workers without offices or break rooms. Domestic helpers fared even worse. Instead of facilitating them to spend time outdoors more safely, the Government advised employers to keep them inside, making them more vulnerable to labour, physical and sexual abuse


With new variants popping up, COVID-19 will likely be with us for quite some time. And, given growing human threats to biodiversity, the next pandemic will probably arrive sooner than we think. We must therefore think carefully about planning for resilience in a post-COVID world. What can Hong Kong learn from global experience about providing socially-distanced ways for people to move around cities and enjoy public space? What can we learn about planning for flexibility so that spaces can be quickly repurposed in times of emergency? And what can we learn about using public space to protect the most vulnerable members of society? 

Image courtesy of Pierfrancesco Celada, Instagrampier project