Being locked down for Covid 19 has given us the chance to think long and hard about what is important in our lives and what the future might hold. We have realised those important things that we are missing during lockdown but we have also (re)discovered things that we were overlooking or taking for granted in our busy lives.

For many, nature and the outdoors has been one of these big (re)discoveries. Those who previously exercised in gyms, or did not exercise at all, have been getting outside. Assisted by the sunniest April on record, people have been going to places in their neighbourhoods that they never knew existed. Parks, footpaths in the countryside, nature reserves and back-streets. Cambridge Past, Present & Future often refers to the importance of “green lungs for Cambridge” and providing “green gyms or surgeries” and hopefully people better understand now what we are trying to say and do.

During this crisis CambridgePPF has worked very hard, in difficult circumstances, to keep our parks open because we care about our community and wanted to be able to continue to offer these “green lungs” as a public amenity when they are most needed. We have received heartfelt messages from people saying how important the charity’s green spaces were to them in providing mental and physical escape.

It has been pleasing to hear government medical advisers saying how important parks and open spaces are for the nation’s health. Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, some of us were discussing a parks crisis caused by a decade of austerity. CambridgePPF has felt this in particular as it is reliant on public support and receives no central or local government funding to maintain its parks and green spaces.

Quieter roads, skies and much more home working has allowed us to hear and see the nature around us in a way that we have not done before. For many of us, those experiences of nature have been one of the things keeping us sane and giving us hope. It is amazing how much joy I can get from listening to a Blackbird singing on a sunny spring evening.

The lockdown has also given us an insight into what our neighbourhoods could be like without vehicles, pollution and noise. And how we feel a greater sense of community when people care more about others in their neighbourhood. We have realised that there can be other ways of doing things and leads us, importantly, to question what we were doing before and whether we had got our priorities right.

Of course, lockdown has been far from an idyll and, for most us, getting back to some kind of “normal” can’t happen quickly enough. There are many things that we need to re-establish as quickly as we can: schools, everyday health & social care, business and employment. However, if we were to simply plough on the way things were before, without at least a pause for thought we would be missing a huge opportunity. We need to take stock of these last few weeks.

If nature, green spaces and the public realm are crucially important to our health, then how do we plan and behave to make sure they are cared for and improved? What priority should this have in relation to other objectives such as economic growth?  How do we plan necessary and sensible growth whilst ensuring that nature and the community also benefit?

I am sure that our collective priorities have shifted since we went into lock down, and that we need to pause and then modify our previous assumptions before rushing back to the way things were. This means that we should start to change the way we plan our communities. For example, the pandemic has shown the scope there is for home working. Therefore, if we built new houses and community work hubs that have fast broadband and good IT equipment then many people may well prefer not to commute to work every day. If that is what we decide to do (and I think it is pretty clear that is what we should be doing), then is it sensible to use historic traffic data as a base to plan for the future, or do we need to modify our transport plans in light of changing behaviours?

This is very relevant for greater Cambridge, which has started the process of preparing a new Local Plan which will guide development to 2040. The local authorities currently have teams of consultants using historic data to help them plan the future. Is this now sensible? It feels like the virus has given us the chance to pause and ask whether things have fundamentally changed. If they have, then we can start to head in a new direction before we are, once again, short-sighted by our busy lives and misplaced priorities.  The worst outcome of all would be for us to ignore this rare and important opportunity which comes from this otherwise dreadful experience.