By Dr Deepa Pullanikkatil, Co-Director of Sustainable Futures in Africa (SFA) Network

The other day, my colleague Vanessa Duclos, the Research Manager of the SFA Network, shared with me a picture of her family cycling on Buchanan Street, which is one of the main shopping thoroughfares in Glasgow. The emptiness of the place (as it was during lockdown) in her photo struck me and I began dwelling on the importance of public and green spaces in the wake of COVID-19. From my stays in Glasgow, I remember Buchanan street as a bustling shopping center and public space filled with pedestrians and shoppers. Being a nature lover, my eyes would automatically go towards the manicured healthy ornamental trees in public spaces. I particularly enjoyed Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow and during one visit, it had snowed, and the area was looking so beautiful. On another visit, Christmas decorations filled the space and looked spectacular at night, tempting me to take long walks notwithstanding the cold. I purposely chose the route from Buchanan, through Sauchiehall street and then on to the very green Kelvingrove park during my daily walk to the University of Glasgow to appreciate the beautiful public and green spaces of the city.

While seated at my desk in Mbabane, Eswatini, next to a window overlooking our backyard, I realize that today is the 50th day of entirely staying and working from home. Looking through my window at the backyard, I feel grateful for this green space. Every day, to refresh myself, I take walks in the yard. I listen to the birds chirping, check on the few tomatoes and herbs growing, inhale the fresh air and watch the branches of trees sway and leaves flutter in the wind; then I return to my desk reinvigorated. This daily routine gives me a deep sense of peace and contentment, and the strength to cope with the isolation due to the COVID-19 crisis. I can testify that nature has healing power and we have a biological connection with nature.

During one of my trips to Glasgow, I talked about “Biophilia” with colleagues. Biophilia is the human desire to commune with nature (a term coined by the Harvard naturalist Dr. Edward O. Wilson). Biophilia explains why nature has a therapeutic effect on us as it is a genetically based human need to be close to nature. It explains why we feel so happy after a hike on a mountain or a walk in a forest or resting by the beach as the ocean waves splash nearby. “Biophilic Design” for cities can help plan the built environment so that we may experience the human benefits of biophilia. But, looking at city designs in some parts of the world, I fear that green and public spaces are getting smaller, due to increasing demand for land and a growing urban population. Yet, there is also a greater realization and awareness and trend to bring the outdoors in. Skylights, indoor plants, furniture and built environments that incorporate plants are becoming popular. I hope the Biophilic design movement continues to grow in influence on city designs, making our cities greener and giving every dweller the benefits that green spaces provide.

This morning, my daughter and I saw a Kingfisher bird in the yard, we stared at it through our window with smiles on our faces, I felt a deep appreciation of nature, a deep sense of “biophilia”. Yes, this green space in our backyard was making the isolation during COVID-19 endurable. Everybody needs this while physical distancing, as green spaces and nature contact could provide positive well-being effects and counteract stress. We have had a lot of online discussions in SFA on how the world could be post COVID-19 and rethinking the “new normal”. Post COVID-19, as the world continues to urbanize, let us not forget our public and green spaces. Let us appreciate these spaces more, preserve them, expand them and try to nurture them, because they do keep us sane during difficult times.