Covid-19, Geography and Urban Ecology: practitioner experiences

By Ian Douglas, University of Manchester, UK

As with other disasters, be they due to human folly or geophysical forces, Covid-19 is impinging upon all aspects of geography and human life. We are advised that many of the lessons from this pandemic are applicable to other global crises such as global heating and the extinction crisis. It is also illuminating the huge, persistent, social and economic inequalities across the worlds and within nation states Fear of aggravated food security and hunger crises concern under-funded bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). 

Fundamental geographical questions of spatial scale loom large when global and national responses to the pandemic are compared. Have states with effectively devolved regional and local governments delivered better responses than those with highly centralised administrations? How have local circumstances affected the spatial pattern and numbers of cases and hospitalisations?  In the UK, vulnerability to the Covid-19 crisis has varied across local authorities, with people living in one area experiencing markedly different outcomes from their neighbours in adjacent authorities. In the coming months, the impacts on future health, well-being and employment are likely to differ considerably between local government areas There are suspicions that skills in local and regional government public health services have been inadequately employed in coping with Covid-19 in England.

Among the positive aspects of lockdown, there has been a greater use of urban greenspaces an increased awareness of the benefits of urban nature and an ability to hear far more of the dawn chorus and other bird song I recently conducted a survey to find out how Covid-19 restrictions have affected urban ecology activities. This was done on behalf of the UK Urban Ecology Forum and covered both Forum members and chapter authors from the forthcoming second edition of the Forum’s Routledge Handbook of Urban Ecology.

Respondents’ experiences are governed by their particular expertise on aspects of the urban environment and by the cultures and practices of the places where they live and work. Several work outside their countries of residence and have been particularly constrained in what they can do by lockdown regulations in more than one country.

Those managing urban greenspaces report that while volunteer work has virtually ceased and no one is available to deal with invasive species such as Himalayan balsam, some important major projects can be finalised. In the wetland lands of the Carbon Landscape around Wigan, Greater Manchester, several capital-funded restoration projects have been completed. Lack of mowing of grassed areas is likely to encourage greater biodiversity. A London member commented that society has transformed parks into a crucial element of our lives as places where we can both distance ourselves from others, while simultaneously coming together as communities. 

An environmental artist in Japan suggests that the pandemic could lead to new types of virtual art exhibitions on urban ecological themes. Yet for many researchers engaged in interaction with the community, project progress was hampered by not being able to hold face-to-face meetings. Others though are making plans for workshops and interviews with communities of stakeholders to learn, analyse and assess their present state of confidence after the pandemic, and their future vulnerability, resilience and prospects. Natural England’s People and Nature Public Survey will endeavour to capture visiting and engagement with greenspaces and nature in response the Covid-19 measures.

Several respondents drew attention to future planning needs and the need to ensure interest in urban nature is turned into sustained investment. For example, the challenges of confinement to apartments or houses without gardens may increase the drive for the provision of biodiverse and biophilic habitats for people both in the public realm and on buildings. 

It is clear that changes in public behaviour in response to crises will have to be more thoroughly considered in future planning. Improved international urban accessible natural greenspace standards ought to combine ecosystem service enhancement, including carbon capture and biodiversity, with creative conservation delivery to make urban greening a transformative global movement. 

Others drew attention to how urban and peri-urban agriculture might increase urban food security both in times of crisis as well as providing a longer-term solution. Further questions concerned how efforts to shield older people may inadvertently make them more exposed to very high temperatures; and how microbiota in human immune systems relate to the urban environment and to human resistance or susceptibility to Covid-19. 

As a whole the survey revealed the recognition of new opportunities, greater social cohesion, changing attitudes to urban open spaces and a desire that people take time during lockdown to conceive better ways of managing town and cities in the future.  There is an opportunity to re-imagine our urban spaces and our relationship with the natural world. For landscape architects there could be consideration of how to use resources more effectively in the design and management of green spaces. For all concerned with urban well-being, there is an opportunity to encourage the continuation of the community spirit community of self-help to speed an economic recovery and increase the resilience of cities to biological, ecological, climatic, economic, political and social crises and disasters. Many of the questions that geographers ask about gender equality and environmental and social justice may have to be reframed and reinforced.

One significant issue for many practitioners is the inability to do fieldwork. Many institutions having completely stopped it. Despite this, projects have continued. In Uganda, for example, working with Commonwealth Human Ecology Council (CHEC), a small charity promoting sustainability and wise use of the planet’s natural resources, we had established a pilot project training young, unmarried mothers in bee-keeping. The local lockdown has prevented both the project supervisor and our local counterpart adviser from visiting the young women. Some training has had to be postponed but local assistance is being arranged for the women’s first honey harvest. So far, the trainers have not been affected by the locusts invading neighbouring countries a little further east. The threat of double disasters is ever present in tropical regions where many areas have already had severe tropical cyclones and wildfires during the pandemic. 

In a separate example, a mangrove project in response to the Commonwealth Blue Charter last month (June 2020) we received some last-minute funding with a spending deadline. We asked colleagues in six countries to organise activities. In spite of Covid-19 colleagues at the Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences organised three workshops with fishermen, local communities and teenagers, to encourage sustainable fisheries and the protection of mangroves. Participants wore masks and sat two metres apart; police advice on which young people could attend was followed, and this work on mangrove safeguarding was carried forward.  

The importance of urban ecology has never been clearer and appropriate engagement with local communities have the potential to bring great results. We should not miss the chance to learn lessons from Covid-19, not only about disaster preparation planning, but also about the consequences of human wildlife interaction, especially in the tropics and of the importance of ecology of our everyday lives and wellbeing.

About the author: Ian Douglas studied at Oxford and the Australian National University. He worked at Hull University before becoming Professor of Geography at the University of New England, NSW, Australia in 1971 and subsequently Professor of Physical Geography at the University of Manchester in 1979. His initial research was on tropical geomorphology, but observations on urban erosion in Malaysia led to his 1983 book “The Urban Environment”. Subsequently, he worked on urban ecology, while continuing a major hydrological research programme In Borneo. He has remained active locally and internationally, since early retirement in 1997.

Suggested Further Reading

Douglas, I.  (2020) COVID-19 compassion in self-isolating old age: looking forward from family to regional and global concerns, Socio-Ecological Practice Research, DOI: 10.1007/s42532-020-00053-4 

Hulme, M., Lidskog, R., White, J.M. and Standring, A. (2020) Social scientific knowledge in times of crisis: What climate change can learn from coronavirus (and vice versa), WIRES Climate Change DOI: 10.1002/wcc.656

Malanson, G.P. (2020) COVID-19, zoonoses, and physical geography, Progress in Physical Geography 44(2) 149–150, DOI: 10.1177/0309133320918386

Davenport, A., Farquharson, C., Rasul, I., Sibieta, L., and Stoye, G. (2020) The geography of the COVID-19 crisis in England, London: Institute of Fiscal Studies


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