71. Coronavirus, home, public space, and the extraordinary times in which we live

When I think back to just over a month ago life seemed pretty normal.  Coronavirus was in the news and we were aware of the lockdowns in China and parts of Italy, but somehow it all seemed so far away.  Since then, of course, it has come home to roost and turned all of our lives upside-down; a third of the world is currently in lockdown and social distancing is the new normal.

Dublin park
The new normal

The tragic death toll and debilitating illness caused by Covid-19 is at the forefront of all of our minds.  Knock-on economic and social hardships that will undoubtedly ensue.  Many have compared our circumstances to a war, although a strange war that requires most of us to stay in the comfort of our home and binge on boxsets.  But of course, that is not the reality for all of us.  For many, the time at home will reinforce all too clearly the everyday limitations of their home environment.

A smaller world of home

Our current lockdown is perhaps the closest that many of us will come to experiencing life in a prison, although in this case imprisonment with our own families (which, as I can confirm, with three kids at home and climbing the walls is its own form of punishment!).  But I should regard myself as lucky, with good space standards at home and a private garden for the kids to let off steam (including a trampoline which has never got so much use!).

Others, are less fortunate, and whilst research conducted by the LSE has shown no link between living at different densities and resident satisfaction with the home environment (in other words, those living at higher densities are just as happy), in the current very unusual circumstances having a garden space (even if small) is undoubtedly a real bonus.

For those without, the situation only reinforces what we already knew, that substandard space in the home creates huge life disadvantages, particularly for families.  Reports, in London of new homes with just 10 square metres of liveable space are surely unacceptable by any standard.  In the current circumstances this really would be like living in a cell (the London Housing Design Guide suggests a minimum of 50sqm for a one person apartment).

10sqm apartment copy
The 10-sqm home – an office to residential conversion built under permitted development rights with just 10sqm of living space

Beyond the home

In the UK, for those of us required to stay at home, we are fortunately still able to go out and get exercise once a day.  This is vital for our physical and mental health and in the new world of Covid-19 is also leading to some fascinating new behaviours:

  • The street swerve – swerving from one side of the road to the other as people move down streets in order to stay at least two metres apart from strangers
  • The park perambulation – our parks have become busier than ever, but few sit down, instead we wander around the edge in a line of constant movement and avoidance
  • Wash and wipe – the constant furtive washing and wiping with hand gels and the like as if the world has become toxic (which I suppose it has)
  • The shop shuffle – two in, two out, and a shuffle around once inside to avoid other shoppers whilst taking care not to transgress invisible barriers indicated by tape on the floor
  • Masked masses – masking has long been common-place in East Asia to stop the spread of colds, but still looks and feels strange here
  • The street shout – holding conversations across the street to friends and neighbours, or Romeo and Juliet style (as one colleague put it) from street to window
  • Balancing business – the increasing site of parents in parks conducting a Zoom business meeting whilst simultaneously managing the kids.

Some behaviours hark back to an earlier time when resources were less plentiful and more of us were at home during the day: conversations over garden walls have become everyday occurrences again; queuing for our food (aka to get into the supermarket); getting to know and helping out neighbours in the street (or via WhatsApp); and seeing the police on the streets again, now playing the latest crime-busting game – spot the Covid-19 code breakers (having a conversation too close or gathering in a group).

Talking across the garden wall – 2 metres apart of course

Of course, the world is not quite so small as it used to be, and with the retreat from public space has come a reliance on cyber-space as never before.  For me, with students who have now returned to the four corners of the world, it is fascinating to hear how responses to the crisis have varied from place to place, from a total lock down in Italy (no going out at all), to things getting back to normal in China (although masks have to be worn at all times outside the home, in public space and in the workplace).

One colleague from California tells me of the determination to keep at least some public realm in operation care of small innovations such as local framers markets with one-way stalls.  Elsewhere a number of cities have been shutting down roads to vehicles in an attempt to create more space for pedestrians to move whilst respecting social distancing rules.

Santa Monica social distancing copy
Using tape to create one-way system to view market stalls, Santa Monica (image: Matthew Hall)

Beware of the long-term impacts

Beyond the everyday adaptations and disruptions, there will surely be long-term and profound implications from the coronavirus pandemic as a consequence of the economic fall-out and associated social impacts.

Now that online shopping is the only option for everything but food, will our shopping habits ever fully return to what they were before the pandemic?  It is indicative, for example, that non-food shop workers are not classified as key workers (able to keep working), whilst ‘white-van-man’ is!  Our high streets were already under strain before coronavirus forced all the shops to shut.  The question is, how much of the sector will survive the enforced closures and in what form?

More generally, with the costs mounting up for the country, one also fears a return with a vengeance of austerity once this is over.  In the built environment this could easily mean a quick withdrawal of funding from the management of streets and public spaces; an even greater reliance on the private sector to deliver new homes; and a return of an ‘anything goes’ mentality as regards design quality in order to get the country building again.  In other words, a return to the mistaken belief that quality is a luxury that we can ill afford when things are tight.

That, of course, was where we quickly ended up after the 2008 financial crisis and the results, as published in A Housing Design Audit for England, are all around us to see: isolated and isolating, single use, non-walkable, roads-dominated, treeless environments.  Such places will certainly make the current coronavirus lock-down even harder to bear!  In the long-term the health, social, economic and environmental implications of such places could be more pervasive and just as profound as the immediate crisis we face today – we should not go there again!

So what can we learn?

For a researcher ,such as myself, the current crisis is extremely informative, further enriching our knowledge about how different environments fare in times of stress.  However, as cartoonist MATT warns: “If you show early signs of becoming an armchair expert, you must self-isolate till 2021”; in other words, no one really knows what the long-term (or even short-term) consequences will be.  That said, we can certainly have some good guesses.

MATT, The Telegraph

Stresses and strains: First, one has to marvel at how quickly and successfully societies around the world have been able to adapt to the new everyday reality – one of isolation, homeworking (for those lucky enough to have this option), social distancing and living once again in a much smaller world.  Whilst on the whole we have been able to retreat to our homes in a civilised manner and – in the West at least – all the services on which we rely, from water, to broadband, to critical social services, have kept on running, the stresses and strains of locking citizens down are clear to see in the shocking rises in domestic abuse that have been reported both here in the UK and around the world.  The long-term consequences of such social stresses and strains are as yet unknown, but are likely to be significant.

Place quality is critical: Once the lockdown is over, it will be instructive to correlate data on this and other social indicators with data on the types of environments in which we live.  My hypothesis would be that those living in environments that are less walkable, that lack a mix of uses (e.g. local food shops), private garden spaces (either private or communal) and good local green spaces will come off worse – those living in conditions that fall below a minimum internal space standard worst of all.  We need to redouble our efforts to design high quality environments (inside and out) that support sustainable, healthy lifestyles whilst avoiding returning to the short-termism of the past.

Lock in the gains: To facilitate this, and to make more places more walkable, we should fundamentally re-consider and re-balance the space we give over in our cities to cars.  We have seen huge drops in pollution during the period of lockdown, and this is a positive outcome with massive long-term health benefits that we should attempt to bank and build upon.

A home-working revolution: With more of us getting used to working from home and benefitting from the freedoms and flexibilities that implies – including less travel time and more time with the family – this crisis may mark a fundamental change in the relationship between home and work.  Certainly, many wish to change their commuting habits in a post-pandemic world, and businesses and public services, having found that they can work in this way, may be very pleased to facilitate it.  The impact on travel, congestion and pollution could be profound.

Leisure based high streets: A greater population at home with more time on its hands may offer the lifeline that many of our local high streets need, although to survive they will certainly need to continue their journey from providers of everyday essential services to leisure services.  Making our high streets places that people really want to spend time (and money) and giving users more high quality walkable space to do it in will be key.  In turn this could reinforce the gains in community feeling, support and identity that Covid-19 has unexpectedly helped to usher in.

A return to public space: Ultimately, we are a social species, and I hope that will drive a speedy return to fill the public spaces of our cities and to revive our high streets once the lockdown is done.  Over the centuries large cities around the world have shown incredible resilience, adaptability and strength despite the periodic crises they face.  A clearer demonstration we will not find than the recent celebrations in Wuhan – the original epicentre of the virus – where the ending of 76 days of lockdown involved an immediate return to the city’s public spaces, care of a lightshow projected onto the buildings of the city.

wuhan-light show copy
Celebrating the end of lockdown – Wuhan

Fingers crossed we will be there soon!

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


April 2020

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