Covid recovery: We must ensure Edinburgh is fairer, healthier and truly resilient – Daisy Narayanan

We need to ask what kind of places and communities we want to have – and recent events show the importance of adapting to cope with increasingly extreme weather, writes Daisy Narayanan

By Daisy Narayanan
Tuesday, 1st September 2020, 4:45 pm
Illustrator Katie Quinn’s interpretation of Daisy Narayanan’s vision of the future (Image by Katie Quinn, part of the Smart Places series)
Illustrator Katie Quinn’s interpretation of Daisy Narayanan’s vision of the future (Image by Katie Quinn, part of the Smart Places series)

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it,” Helen Keller once said.

Over the past few months, I have found myself reflecting on resilience. Resilience that you find within yourself, within communities and within our neighbourhoods, towns and cities. Resilience that we see all around us through our individual and collective response to the Covid-19 crisis.

At work we continue to learn new ways of moving forward whilst ensuring that we don’t lose our sense of togetherness and empathy. At home, I have watched in admiration as my children and their friends have adapted to their strange circumstances, finding new ways to communicate and stay connected to one another. Now that they have returned to school, I see their joy as they meet their friends again, and quietly hope that there will be no more disruption to school.

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And during the pandemic, I lost someone I loved dearly. Like many others, I have had to find a new way to grieve from a distance.

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Our relationship with each other as well as our connections with the built and natural environment around us are being completely redefined by this public health crisis.

I read somewhere that “moments of crisis can provide a heightened insight into the problems of everyday life pre-crisis”. Looking at the uncertain future ahead, we need to acknowledge that many parts of the ‘normal’ that we long for were broken. And now we have an opportunity to take a proactive approach in shaping the evolving life after lockdown, ensuring it can eventually lead to the fairer, healthier and happier world we want to see.

One year ago, I was on secondment to the City of Edinburgh Council, leading a 10-year project to transform the city centre: changing how we live, work and play in the city by making it better for people on foot and bike and public transport, reducing vehicular dominance and giving the city centre streets back to people.

One year on, the need to create more people-friendly streets and neighbourhoods has not changed. If anything, there is a much stronger sense of urgency and an imperative to do so.

The challenge

As we look ahead to the next few months, Edinburgh’s citizens will need build individual and collective resilience to deal with significant challenges. How we continue to maintain our human connections whilst staying physically distant will be one of the most significant issues we need to address.

We need a public discourse on the connection between better public spaces and economic recovery, and the recognition that making space on our streets for walking, cycling and wheeling is central to getting the city reconnected and back on its feet.

As the lockdown loosens, new travel patterns and mode choices will emerge. Without action now, there is a real risk that the car will become the default mode of socially distanced transport.

The vision

Sustainable, low-carbon and active transport will be at the heart of the recovery as we face an uncertain future.

Positive change will happen through real collaboration, with people shaping the places that they live, play and work in. The discussions and decision-making will be truly inclusive. By ensuring that voices of under-represented groups are integrated in policy and planning, through meaningful community engagement and participation, we will truly understand and address the specific needs of Edinburgh’s citizens.

Because a city that works for the young and the old, for the most vulnerable on our streets, is a city that works for everyone.

This pandemic has highlighted the crossovers between the quality of our places, public health, economy, transport, education, air quality and social justice. We already have evidence of the positive impact of active transport on Edinburgh’s economy, environment and public health. For example, the Sustrans Bike Life Edinburgh report showed that 24 per cent of Edinburgh residents cycle at least once a week, leading to 27.1 million trips made by bicycle in the past year. The direct benefits have included a saving of 14,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas, £1.6 million saving to the NHS and prevention of 251 long-term health conditions.

We need to ask what kind of places we want to have, what kind of communities we want to have. Recent weather events show the importance of resilience. In some parts of Scotland, three weeks of rain fell in just one hour during the night earlier this month. What was an inconvenience in our office – with servers being hit by flooding for a few hours – had tragic consequences elsewhere in Stonehaven. We are told these extreme weather events will become more frequent. We must be ready. And we can.

Charles Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

We can only respond to the unprecedented scale of change we face today by harnessing our individual and collective strength and helping to shape a future for Edinburgh that is fairer, healthier and truly resilient.

Daisy Narayanan is director of urbanism at Sustrans Scotland.

This article is adapted from her thought piece featured in the Smart Places series of articles, bespoke illustrations, online events and conversations developed by Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI), the Data-Driven Innovation programme (DDI) and Edinburgh Living Lab at the University of Edinburgh.

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