April 11, 2020 08:13:55
In just a matter of weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has turned our vibrant modern cities into virtual ghost towns.
Australian planners say COVID-19 could have a lasting impact on urban lifeA cultural shift to working from home could reinvigorate suburban centresPublic transport may be hit hard, in favour of cycling and electric scooters
Tens of thousands of Australians are without jobs and 24.6 million people have been told to stay home unless they absolutely have to go outside.
The economic downturn and social distancing measures are changing the way we interact with others and the places we frequent in our community.
Some of those changes are noticeable — playgrounds taped off, empty highways, even automated pedestrian crosswalk lights so people don’t need to touch a button.
But what lasting change will COVID-19 have on the ways our cities, suburbs and towns operate?
“Take a deep breath and get ready for the 2020s being the era of massive change,” predicts Curtin University sustainability Professor Peter Newman.
“There’s going to be a huge number of things which will facilitate that.”
The rebirth of the suburban main drag
Across Australia, thousands of people used to commuting to bustling city business districts each day are now working from their suburban homes.
Julian Bolleter, co-director of the Australian Urban Design Research Centre, said he expected a sustained cultural shift towards working from home even after the pandemic had passed.
“I think it’s forced a lot of organisations to work online, even though the technology has been around for some time,” he said.
“I think we won’t be the same again and people will adapt to this new way of working.
“Now, of course, normalcy will return to some degree, but I think a shift will have occurred.”
Peter Ciemitis, from planning and design firm RobertsDay, said he believed that shift could revive the neighbourhood high street.
“It means the local place, the local neighbourhood, becomes all important,” he said.
“You still need to try to avoid cabin fever. You still need to try to get out and perhaps go for a walk, try to grab a takeaway coffee if you can, or something of that nature.”
He said while many high streets were struggling economically before COVID-19, they remained essential pillars of suburban life.
“The power of the high street is that even in the darkest of hours, you can’t switch it off,” Mr Ciemitis said.
“You’re not going to close down the high street, it’s still going to operate, at least if nothing else, as a street with some businesses closed, some still trading but it’s still going to be there.
“That’s one of its strengths, its resilience to get through the hardest of times.”
Mr Bolleter said there would still be an important role for the CBD.
“Despite everything, by far the greatest employer in Western Australia is the central business district of Perth,” he said.
“Something like 80 per cent of Australia’s GDP goes through the centre of Melbourne and Sydney.
“I wouldn’t be selling your downtown office just yet. I think that will come back, I just think it might be nuanced or moderated a bit more with the experience of working remotely.
“But I do think people are going to be forced to spend more time in their neighbourhood, that much is certain.”
Anxiety drives cycling and alternative transport
The need for every Australian to practice safe social distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19 has had several noticeable impacts on the urban environment.
Main Roads WA said weekday traffic on arterial roads had fallen by up to 50 per cent compared to normal.
Public transport usage across our cities has dropped by 60 per cent, forcing the cancellation of bus, train and ferry services.
Mr Bolleter said he believed it would take years for the public to become comfortable with public transport again.
“I don’t think this will do public transport any favours,” he said.
“Even if the fear is not rational, if there is still a perception of the risk that lingers after this — which I can only imagine it will — that’s not good news.
“I think this works against public transport, people being confined in buses and railway carriages where people cough on you.
“It might help to fuel some of those alternative private transport modes, like electric bikes, electric scooters, skateboards, cycling — I think all that is going to grow.”
Mr Ciemitis said in the long term, public transport would still be viable and necessary.
“That psychological scarring might be one of the things that takes a while to get beyond,” he said.
“But despite the rate at which we might return back to normal, public transport is not only here to stay, but it will be the thing that makes our city work better into the future.
“Dyed-in-the-wool motorists might actually start experiencing the joy of riding bike.
“They might then suddenly get it in terms of understanding how the street works for cyclists and what we do need to do to make our streets safer for cycling.”
Mr Ciemitis said COVID-19 could also trigger a rethink of how communal facilities were designed.
“I think there will be some nervousness about touch,” he said.
“We might see a need to be even more conscious with how we design outside features.
“For example, the local park across the street could have a fence and a gate that you use to enter because it’s on a busy street.
“A gate like that may need to be elbow-operated rather than operated by hand in the future.
“We might see a little details like that change, but I don’t think there’s going to be anything that’s incredibly ground-shatteringly different.”
Swing away from density
Mr Bolleter said he saw a shift back to suburban living as another unintended consequence of COVID-19.
“I think from this will emerge a greater appreciation of suburban living,” he said.
“If you’re living in an apartment in say, the middle of Paris, your apartment is just like a bed you go to sleep in.
“Life is more about living in the parks, living in cafes and bars and it’s a very much more communal existence.
“My sense is if this period of lockdown goes for as long as people are expecting, there’s going to be a kind of withdrawal where people will want to have everything they need within their own block of land.
“It’s not to say apartments won’t have their place, but I think just generally this will see an emphasis back on suburban living and the virtues that can offer.”
Mr Ciemitis said there was still a place for density, so long as it was planned correctly.
“It’s been really interesting seeing in fairly compact cities people actually coming out onto their balconies singing and there is that connectedness that’s starting to happen between communities,” he said.
“The way we’ve designed many of our suburbs, you go into your home and you can’t see your neighbours.
“The pendulum has maybe swung a little bit too far in terms of preserving privacy.
“With density, there has to be a lot of attention paid to good design so there is a balance between privacy but also the capacity to engage as a community.”
But he said he could understand suburban life would be appealing at this time because of the emphasis on parks and recreation.
“We’re seeing the large park complexes with great walking tracks and cycling tracks becoming very busy,” he said.
“I think this is the time when we’re really realising that importance.
“Also, many people are electing to put the biggest house on the smallest block because they are getting the most bang for the buck.
“But often so many people have been regarding the backyard spaces as wasted space. They don’t really have a purpose for it, they perhaps just put some alfresco there.
“I think this is a time when it’s a great reminder of how important it is to have a garden area.”
COVID-19 could spark renewable revolution
You only need to look to the past to find evidence of when massive world events have triggered changes to the urban form.
“After the Spanish Flu, there was a significant change of pushing in garden suburbs, creating gardens, so that you would have that wonderful bucolic experience of a healthy countryside environment in the place where you live,” Mr Ciemitis said.
“So we’ve now got the legacy of that — most of our suburbs are designed that way.”
Mr Newman said with a global emphasis on climate change and emissions reduction, he predicted COVID-19’s legacy being one of a green revolution.
“There is a massive change in technology which has been building up,” he said.
“Cars were the number one priority as we came out of the last depression and war and across the world, we built our cities around the car.
“Along with oil, this was the technology that was going to transform us.
“Well, we’re going to transform in our cities yet again, but not with that technology.
“They’re going to be transformed with renewables and electric vehicles, and trackless trams.
“2020 has started with a bang as far as COVID and it’s going to be an era of significant change as we begin a new economy that’s much more regenerative for the environment.
“It’s killed off the old economy. Let’s start again. Let’s do it better.”
What you need to know about coronavirus: