Green Futures

COVID-19 and the road to “local green recovery” 

By Rebecca Collins & Katharine Welsh, University of Chester, UK

On 24 February 2022 all COVID-19 restrictions in England formally ended.  Northern Ireland had similarly removed all restrictions the week prior, and the devolved governments of Wales, and Scotland removed national restrictions at the end of March 2022 and mid-April 2022, respectively.  For those awaiting a sign that life in the UK is ‘back to normal’, this was perhaps what they had been waiting for. Yet of course, with new habits having emerged from the pandemic, and COVID-19 remining present in society, normal isn’t quite the same as it was for most people, and therefore many have suggested this phase of the ongoing pandemic to be moving towards a ‘new normal’ rather than going ‘back to normal’. But what could the ‘new normal’ look like for UK households?

Following the ‘stay at home’ rule issued by the UK government during the first ‘lockdown’ (23rd March – 13th May 2020) a range of behavioural changes emerged within everyday individual and household practice.  People changed what and how they consumed (from food to elusive toilet paper); the way they moved around ; the ways in which they connected with family, friends, and neighbours; and the extent to which they engaged with nature and green spaces

Observing these shifts in our own households and neighbourhoods, we were prompted to consider how many of these changes might lead to ‘inadvertently environmental’ behaviours, i.e., behaviours that have net environmental benefit, even though they are carried out for ‘other than environmental’ reasons, such as adapting to new lifestyle patterns, or concerns for health. More importantly, we wonder how many of these changes, if any, might be sustained long beyond the easing of lockdown restrictions when life is ‘back to (a new) normal’. 

In our recent Area paper, “The road to “local green recovery”: Signposts from COVID-19 lockdown life in the UK” we set out a research agenda in response to this question and highlight the important role of geographical enquiry in responding to it.  We argue that the individual, household, and community scale public action in response to the COVID-19 crisis was of a magnitude that climate campaigners have for years only been able to dream of. 

During ‘lockdown’, for instance, support for local business, particularly those selling food and drink rocketed, – with vegetable box schemes benefitting in particular.  At the same time, food waste significantly reduced (partly due to concern over supply chains), as did motorised transport miles due to furlough schemes and increased levels of working from home. 

Recent scholarship from within geography has provided grist to our mill by elaborating on some of the themes we highlighted.  Morag Rose, for instance, has explored how walking-as-connecting took on different forms during the pandemic, and Troy Glover noted how more walking precipitated more active ‘neighbouring’.  Although neither author links their interests directly to resilience to environmental crises, there are synergies with the urgent need to catalyse bottom-up action on the climate and nature emergencies.

Throughout the pandemic there have been ambitions nationally from the UK government (and governments elsewhere in the world) to ‘build back better’ in the context of a ‘green recovery’ from COVID-19.  From the earliest stages of the pandemic, recognition of significant economic shocks (supply chains, production output and employment) existing in parallel with clear environmental benefits created a compelling argument to re-think the economy-environment relationship.  There was optimism that the temporary halt of human activity, and the resultant reclaiming of urban spaces by wildlife, and the clearing of air and seas of pollutants, could be a critical turning point for action on the climate and nature emergencies; the idea of a ‘green recovery’ seemed both attractive and achievable. In the UK this optimism aligned with many local authorities declaring a climate emergency, following the declaration by UK national government in 2019, as well as the subsequent commitments made by the UK – and other nations – at COP26 in 2021.  Whilst this ‘green recovery’ simultaneously addressing COVID-19 and the climate emergency has been slow to emerge at a national level, local authorities seemed more inclined to find ways of addressing the two together.  At the same time, there has been recognition that place-sensitive action at local scales is likely to be more beneficial to meeting the needs of local populations in terms of both the local economies and environment. 

As the ongoing pandemic intersects with other global and national crises, it is difficult to identify where the behavioural changes catalysed by COVID-19 might take us and whether, or not, they will lead to a more just, equitable, safe and sustainable future.  However, as we outline in ‘the road to “local green recovery” it has been the informal, self-organised changes, away from formal institutional and governance structures where some of the most responsive and immediately impactful action on pandemic response has been taken.  With the recent publication of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, which warns that the window within which to avert catastrophic disruption is rapidly closing, the urgency of any kind of ‘green recovery’ has therefore never been greater.

About the authors: Dr Rebecca Collins is a human geographer with research interests in young adults’ environmental (in)action and material cultures of everyday (un)sustainability.  She is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Chester. Dr Katharine Welsh is a Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography at the University of Chester with research interests in technology enhanced learning, sediment dynamics and community resilience.

Suggested further reading:

Collins, R. & Welsh, K. (2022) The road to “local green recovery”: Signposts from COVID-19 lockdown life in the UK. Area, 00, 1– 9. Available from:

How to cite: Collins, R & Welsh, K (2022, 4 May) COVID-19 and the road to “local green recovery” Geography Directions

Leave a Reply or Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: