Public space, Covid, and the right to recreation

File photo of children playing on a car-free Manik Mia Avenue in Dhaka before Covid-19 stuck Bangladesh. Photo: Orchid Chakma

As the Covid pandemic drags on and schools and universities continue to remain closed, children and youth in particular are tired of being cooped up at home. Serious as they are, it is not just the loss of livelihoods and education that affect us; we need to have social contact, relaxation, and recreation.

Realising this basic human need—and taking into account a significant reduction in travel as many people work remotely and learn again to cook for themselves—many cities around the world are dedicating road space that was formerly reserved for the automobiles to cycling, walking, or outdoor play. Rue de Tivoli, a major boulevard in Paris, has thus been repurposed and is now lively with people safely getting their exercise—and fun—outdoors. Other cities around the world have seen a surge in pop-up bicycle lanes and have widened their footpaths.

And what have we done in Dhaka? Parks and fields have been shut down, and all our car-free day programmes such as in Uttara and on Manik Mia Avenue have been stopped. Prior to Covid, the first Friday of every month, from 8am to 11am, one side of Manik Mia Avenue would transform into a lively space where young children played games under the watchful eyes of their parents, while the youth played football, volleyball and cricket, or rode bicycles or roller skates. A similar scene occurred in Uttara every Friday morning, and on a small street at Mohammadi Housing Society in Mohammadpur one Saturday a month. Streets were transformed from being dominated by motor vehicles to places where young people could actively enjoy themselves, the sound of laughter and shouts echoing, people standing outside chatting with friends and strangers. Liveable, lively streets.

Children and young people are resilient and creative. Some climb over boundary walls to access fields when the gate is locked. Others take over streets at quiet times to play cricket or football. They are almost exclusively male and they know that their behaviour is frowned upon. Children should be encouraged to play outdoors rather than prevented, and girls should feel equally welcomed.

What if, instead of trying to protect people by trapping them indoors, we tried to understand better the way Covid is spread? Enclosed indoor spaces can be dangerous, especially when they lack sufficient ventilation. Being outdoors, especially if not in a crowd, is quite safe. For people in cramped homes, it can be safer to spend time outdoors than inside, and exercising in a park or on a street is vastly safer than exercising in a gym.

It is relatively simple to address the social and psychological needs of young people by allowing them access to open spaces outdoors. And while I am focusing on young people, the need for recreation and social interaction is true for all ages.

During Covid, and well into the future, we need to acknowledge and prioritise the need people have for open public spaces, such as parks and fields, and ensure that those spaces are not destroyed in the name of "development". During Covid, and beyond, we can repurpose the most abundant public space—our streets—either temporarily (a few hours a week) or permanently into a true public space, no longer dominated by the private vehicles. On a more modest scale, we can convert some parking spaces, temporarily or permanently, into small parks, once again returning some of our public space to public use.

Where would all the cars go, then? Truthfully, we'd be better off with far fewer of them. Yes, some people will be inconvenienced. They may have to learn to adjust their routine to stay closer to home or, like the majority in the city, rely on other forms of transport. In return, we could provide opportunities for physical and mental health, nay, happiness, to many.

Our lives have changed in so many ways due to Covid—why not voluntarily embrace a change that would permanently reduce congestion, pollution, and deadly crashes while making Dhaka more liveable? Let's liberate more of our public space for public use and relegate the automobile, rather than our children and youth, to lower priority.


Debra Efroymson is executive director of the Institute of Wellbeing in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and author of "Beyond Apologies, Defining and Achieving an Economics of Wellbeing".


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