People spread out as they observe social distancing along the length of the Broad Walk in Regent's Park, London, as London's parks remain open with the warning that they will close if people fail to observe the British government guidelines that include two metres social distancing from people that don't live in the same household, to help stop the spread of coronavirus, Saturday, April 4, 2020. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
People observe social distancing in Regent's Park, London, earlier this month © Matt Dunham/AP

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In countries where coronavirus lockdowns have been extended into May, controversy is rising over the use of green spaces and parks. 

Lockdown absolutists see no justification for dawdling, sunbathing or picnicking of any sort. They perceive green spaces as suitable for exercise and transit only. As the UK health secretary Matt Hancock put it, in early April, anything else puts lives at risk. 

But what about those who live in cramped conditions without access to private garden space? Advocates contend that for families living in flats with small children, unrestricted access to open park space is as essential as food. As long as families keep their distance, they argue, why should outdoor activities be banned? The same applies to those living in cramped conditions or in shared accommodation with no communal spaces.

Governments must come up with a reasonable compromise that openly addresses the real challenge at hand, which has little to do with the risk of catching Covid-19 from a family playing ball games metres away. The real problem is about crowd management and the fear of inadvertently sparking public gatherings that eviscerate social distancing efforts due to the numbers and close contact among people involved.

One sensible solution could involve granting those most in need of open space an exception to the general ban on loitering in parks. But evaluating such requests and policing the exceptions is likely to be prohibitively costly. 

In Britain, the shape and structure of open spaces complicates the issue. Unrestricted access to national parks, public commons and beaches is woven into the fabric of UK society. It is deemed a right and many of the open spaces lack fences and gates. Unlike shops and commercial businesses, which can restrict access to their premises in a bid to manage crowds, many British common lands cannot. The administrative and structural challenges are too enormous.

This is where the private sector can help. Owners of large private open spaces, including golf courses and farms, are experimenting with allowing families to enjoy them responsibly without fear of overcrowding. As private entities, they can ration and control access and make it conditional on following specific rules and regulations.

One such initiative, coVValk, in Newport, Shropshire, is already, with local mayoral approval, allowing families to pre-book walking time slots within their privately owned golf course. Richard Maryniak, the scheme’s co-initiator, says he wants corporate brands and sponsors to get involved to keep the access free of charge and available to the lowest income households.

If such schemes were to gain formal government blessing, they would help increase the tolerability and thus effectiveness of urban lockdowns. They would also shift the cost of policing and administering access to open spaces to the private sector, thus lowering the burden on the public purse.

As we gradually exit the lockdowns, we could consider allowing privately owned open spaces to be booked for longer stays, allowing picnicking, sunbathing and even responsible camping. Such schemes could become a modern day equivalent of the countryside retreat policy, or dacha system, organised by the former Soviet Union. There, urban workers were apportioned access to outdoor space for recreation and agricultural support reasons, especially when national food supplies were running low.

This might come in handy if agricultural supplies continue to be threatened by a lack of migrant workers. Pick-your-own farms and orchards are already common. Gathering industrial quantities of strawberries is unlikely to be considered a leisure activity in and of itself. But imagine if it was combined with the right to an extended family stay at a well-managed campsite on a nearby fallow field. Suddenly that might become more appealing. 

Either way it’s time to be innovative. Denying urban residents the opportunity to hang-out in open space will only become more problematic as summer approaches.

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