The 1800s-set pattern COVID put an end to
Quarantine, contact tracing, community transmission. New normal.
Everyone knows that 2020 has changed our lives in a million ways, but (in most of Australia) we are now starting to think about how our lives will change now that lockdowns are rolling back. We’ve talked to death about slowing down and spending time at home, but what does that mean for the way our cities are set up? The way we live has to change, so it also makes sense that where we live has to change.
As a little history lesson, the way our cities are set up started in the industrial revolution. The improvement in technology invented the commute and the separation of work and home. Before this, people would live often above their shop and factories were still amongst the city. The industrial revolution invented the suburbs. The idea was to live out where the air is clean and drive/train into the city for your work. When you think about this, it’s crazy that the COVID-19 pandemic is the only thing that has disrupted a pattern set in the early 1800s.
Most people on most days wake up, get ready for the day and travel to work / school / university / childcare etc. What will happen now that we have been able to cut out the two hours a day spent commuting? Surely this will change the way we treat the central business district? The city is a hub of jobs, culture and people. But now that working remotely is becoming a lot more accepted, will young people still make the pilgrimage from smaller towns into the city?
Even if cities are no longer a job hub, we assume that there will still be those networking opportunities and culture that isn’t as widespread in the regions. But, now we could live in the regions and still work in a city-based business.
The pandemic has been a forced experiment into mass remote work. Working from home is cheaper for the employer, and can provide a better work-life balance for employees. Does this mean that office space is rendered useless? Even as we are starting to return to the workplace, many offices have put in a rotating work pattern to still allow for social distancing. If this continues, we could see less permanent office space and more smaller co-working spaces with hotdesks.
As well as a change to work, the pandemic massively disrupted our play. Many people became desperate for any breath of fresh air. This put city parks, footpaths and cycle paths at capacity. When you’re trapped at home all day, exercising really was seen as a luxury. I have never seen the parks and paths around my house so busy. It puts into perspective how many people rely on a single park in higher-density areas. I live in a low to medium density suburb with a mix of houses and two to three storey unit blocks. If the parks in my suburb are so busy, how are CBD dwellers going? I didn’t want to do the math for every Brisbane suburb, but how does the park to person ratio of three suburbs in my inner west neighbourhood (Taringa, Indooroopilly and St Lucia) compare to three inner city suburbs (City, Fortitude Valley and Spring Hill)?
Taringa = 1 park per 1396 people Indooroopilly = 1 park per 680 people St Lucia = 1 park per 967 people
Brisbane City = 1 park per 630 people (this includes squares, not strictly parks) Spring Hill = 1 park per 1194 people Fortitude Valley = 1 park per 1395 people
People who live in the city mostly have less park facilities than the more outer suburbs I’ve compared it to. Town planners (like me) love to use density as a measurement for these things (how many people per square metre of parkland) and I would find this extremely interesting, but I don’t really have the energy for it and I’m not being graded on this. So, if there isn’t the benefit of proximity to your workplace - is it worth living in the city? And if people decide that it isn’t, what will we do with all the spare real estate? (You won’t see me complaining if it causes the housing market to drop).
Australia is unfortunately very focussed on somewhat dense city centres and sprawling suburbia. Flexible work options and no commute can really make us wonder if suburbia is all that bad. There is a far bit of research on lower quality of life in these areas, but a lot of this is impacted by the egregious commute time. Quarantine has kind of brought us back to that romantic view that we have of the midcentury. There’s time to meet your neighbour, hang out with your kids, walk around in your neighbourhood.
Obviously I’m not pro-COVID … but I would welcome a future with less traffic, people spending more time at home, and our councils realising that parks and foot/cycle paths are actually pretty important.