Wales: Help change urban spaces into safe areas of encounter

Wales; the land of the Welsh language, luscious green hills and the Eisteddfod. Not, however immune, to Covid-19, the virus that has been the only successful living thing to have quite literally taken over the planet. With a population of only 3.1 million people in the whole of Wales, Welsh cities may be small in size, but have been hit by the virus extensively with the most cases being in South Wales, mainly in the capital of Cardiff and surrounding areas. The Welsh Government have established their own policies to help overcome the pandemic, similar to those addressed in the UK wide system. However, rules regarding social distancing in the workplace and exercising differ from the overall system. The general guidance issued by the Welsh Government is as follows:

New rules have since permitted people to exercise more than once a day within their local area and local authorities are looking in to how they can open libraries and garden centres in a cautious and controlled manner.

One of the main concerns that Wales has faced during the course of the pandemic was highlighted in Governmental talks on the tourism industry, in which the Minister for International Relations in Wales described tourism as, ‘the foundation sector and [the] absolute key to the Welsh economy’. The struggle in Wales to keep the tourists from travelling to the country saw the slogan of, ‘Visit Wales. Later.’ which urged second home-owners and tourists to stay away. Having an increased amount of people who do not usually call Wales their home, but visit for a holiday, has the potential to have profound effects on rural and urban communities in terms of their food and health supplies. People choose Wales because of its national parks and big, wide open spaces, and the spring and summer time brings an influx of tourists every year.

For those who live in cities, their reality portrays often overcrowded, cramped spaces with little to no access to green spaces or parks, meaning that the parks that are still open to the public are exploited. Some privately owned estates and parks in Wales have since closed to the public, further creating tension between the general public and private owners, who believe that they should be allowed to utilise the grounds that are close to their home. The Welsh Government have passed the decision onto local authorities to make judgements regarding parks and public spaces, and most have closed because of health and safety reasons. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, public spaces were built to provide opportunities for people to encounter others and promote social inclusion. The decision to close private parks during the pandemic has restricted these spaces of encounter, creating them into sites of exclusion.

Cardiff council are researching ways in which they can widen pavements to create safe cycle paths, a sustainable transport method to travel around the city. The council are also considering abandoning prospects of any street furniture (park benches) as a response to Covid-19. This is a way of creating a new type of built environment, which is a start for urban dwellers in Wales. A package of £2 billion was announced for the use of promoting cycling and walking in England, creating a ‘new era’, however the full response of bettering urban areas is still unknown in Wales. Urban parks have the ability to serve communities, additionally contributing to urban identities, however the question is what the image of the city will and can look like in the future after the pandemic.

The Welsh Government is not doing enough to protect open spaces and change them so that they can be used by the public who may not have access to their own garden/outdoor space. They need to think of how they can better relationships between citizens in a healthy way and work together to create peaceful cities where the public is involved in making decisions as to what happens. Since Wales is famous for its picturesque open spaces, why are councils and private owners focusing on the ‘now’ and keeping their parks closed, instead of endorsing ideas to promote a sustainable and healthy future for the residents of Wales? Should Wales seek its own path out of the pandemic so that it can better itself and aid people in its urban areas to trust each other and work together or should it sit back and watch its neighbouring countries do all the work?

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Cities across the world are establishing unique initiatives and projects to combat the effects of this situation; and by exploring each city’s approach, perhaps we can gain a glimpse of our post quarantine world.

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Catrin Stephens

Bsc (hons) Geography, incoming MSc International Planning and Development. Research interests are urbanism, public spaces and encounters.