Will COVID-19 reshape urban communities?

11 May 2020

By Kate Drews, Market Director, Urban Communities, SMEC

The current COVID-19 pandemic is impacting cities and communities throughout the world. One of the primary strategies to slow the spread of the disease is social distancing. In many jurisdictions, lockdowns have also been mandated in highly urbanised areas. We now need to explore whether urbanisation and the trend towards denser centres of population will need to be reconsidered following the pandemic. Will COVID-19 have a material impact on the way we design cities in the future? If so, what role will planning and design play in this in the future?

Urbanisation and its risks

Scientists over the last few years have questioned our preparation for a pandemic. Researchers have also predicted that urbanisation could be a factor in outbreaks. Many of the health pandemics experienced to date have been zoonotic in origin, which means that they originate in wild animal species and then are passed to humans. This is true for the Ebola and Nipah viruses as well as Sudden Acute Respiratory Virus (SARS), the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and the current 2019-nCoV Acute Respiratory Disease. Increasing urbanisation and the resultant land use changes have impacted the changing interface between humans and animals. Other factors include globalisation and climate change.

These facts have raised questions about the risk and benefits of urbanisation. Some have gone as far as to suggest that it is the hidden cost of human development. The World Health Organisation (WHO) notes that fifty-four percent of the world’s population was already living in urban areas by 2015 and that this is likely to increase to sixty-six percent by 2050. As populations grow, so will cities. The temptation during this pandemic is to perhaps suggest that urbanisation should be scaled back, and city planning revert to lower density; however, the global reality of population increase is likely to make that infeasible.

Population increase includes informal settlements as well as ever larger developed cities. Informal settlements will continue to pose extreme risks for disease outbreaks given the social and economic problems, lack of sanitation and population density. The benefits of large developed cities include the ability to concentrate scarce resources such as medical facilities, provide amenity such as public space and offer a variety of transport modes. These cities are likely to be serviced by better health facilities and sanitation. Many large cities may have both informal and formal aspects to them.

The risk of highly urbanised areas, even in developed countries, is not solely attributable to the built form of the city – the greater impact comes from social behaviours and trends, such as globalisation, that give rise to international trade and travel. The COVID-19 pandemic shows the limitations of global supply chains and the risk associated with thousands of passengers arriving by boat and plane into ports on a daily basis. The ability to quarantine such large numbers of potentially infected people is something many countries are still struggling to deal with.

How could COVID-19 impact the way we design cities in the future?

There are potential lessons for engineers, designers and planners from this experience. At a statutory level, this includes potential changes to building codes to provide touch-free surfaces and facilitate social distancing. A good example is how many public bathroom facilities do not have doors which need to be touched to be opened and have hands-free taps and soap dispensers. The Building Code of Australia is primarily focused on the life safety of occupants and the ability to have them safely exit a building in an emergency situation. In the future, it could potentially consider how building design could prevent and assist in the containment of health pandemics.

The Planning Scheme in each jurisdiction could consider changes to zoning laws to permit a greater mix of uses. Current regulations generally categorise developments into classifications that have residential, industrial or commercial uses. There is room to consider broadening the current scope of mixed-use developments to reduce the risk of certain areas, such as large multi-tower complexes of office accommodation, becoming a pandemic hotspot in the event of an outbreak.

At an individual level, the current pandemic could influence how and where we choose to live and work. For example, the current trend towards four-bedroom houses on the city fringe and two-bedroom units in the city could change as people seek a greater range of choices in their homes so that they can be closer to family, have more support during social isolation, or have access to greener space. Greater housing diversity from small lots through to multi-family dwellings may improve social outcomes in the event of future pandemics. Hot desking and co-working spaces, popularised in recent years, may need to be reconsidered as social distancing measures become required over the medium to long term. Changes to office layouts and communal areas may support social distancing and improve the ease of disinfection. A desire for office spaces in homes may increase to support extended working from home periods.

Another important aspect for our industry is the role of smart cities and technology in managing future pandemics. This area shows some promise as it could assist in a number of ways to manage social and operational requirements during a pandemic event. Digital twins of buildings could be used to scenario plan evacuation procedures and cleaning regimes. Security could be enhanced for the protection of staff and maintenance of essential services.

While the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on cities are yet unknown, the current crisis will likely have a material impact on the way we design cities in the future. Apart from short-term changes to the way we work and the locations we work from, other impacts could include potential changes to legislation and building codes. Over the longer term, I believe that digital solutions can present more sustainable means of planning and managing any outbreaks of the future.




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