Centuries before COVID-19 ravaged cities across the world, outbreaks of deadly diseases transformed the places in which we live.
The cholera and typhoid epidemics of the 19th century sparked the introduction of modern sanitation in the form of sewers and aqueducts and spurred cities to introduce boulevards and parks.
Even the Modernist architecture movement – with its clean simple forms and elimination of decoration – was in part a response to diseases such as the Spanish flu.
“The idea was cleanliness and a streamlined form, getting rid of curlicues and ornamentation which would collect dust,” says Associate Professor Paul Osmond, a lecturer on built environment at University of NSW. “And to bring more sunlight into houses to kill bacteria.”
It’s early days but urban planners are already pondering the marks that will be left by COVID-19.
Cities including Paris, Milan, New York, Oakland and Auckland are closing streets to cars, introducing pop-up bike lanes and wider footpaths and lowering speed limits. These might be temporary measures for now, but many hope they will pave the way for more lasting change.
They argue physical distancing and a reluctance to use public transport due to the risk of contagion are likely to continue until the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.
More than 100 Australian health and transport experts have signed an open letter calling for more safe walking and cycling space here, arguing Australia is lagging in global terms.
More people than ever before are working from home, with a survey by social research agency McCrindle this month finding 78 per cent of Australians agree this will become the new normal.
Our love affair with nature has blossomed, with the ban on sporting activities and closure of gyms seeing people flock to parks to exercise.
“People will say we need to ensure we have more greenery,” Osmond says. He believes that emerging from this pandemic there is likely to be more emphasis on living architecture, such as green roofs and walls.
Debate is raging worldwide over the role of urban density in the crisis, with some of the most crowded cities the hardest hit. (Although densely-populated Asian territories such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea – which had memories of SARS – have thusfar managed to contain it with immigration lockdowns, early testing, contact tracing and consistent messaging.)
“This is not life as usual. There is a density level in [New York City] that is destructive,” Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York state, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, tweeted last month.
Peter Seamer, a former CEO of the Victorian Planning Authority and author of Breaking Point: The Future of Australian Cities, says for decades we have been making our cities denser, particularly to reduce travel distance.
“But some would argue that this has left us more vulnerable than we need be,” he says.
The density debate has prompted speculation that McMansions in the outer suburbs could enjoy a renaissance as people seek respite from the cramped inner city, especially if a new culture of working from home means they no longer face a brutal commute.
Seamer believes there will be a swing back to suburban living, with back yards holding newfound appeal. “I think our relationship with high-rise buildings will change. If this ever happens again people don’t want to be stuck in a little room for another month, climbing up the walls.”
However he believes there is no need to return to the car-oriented suburbs built in the 1960s, which saw local shopping strips die off as people drove past them to megaplazas.
In a post-pandemic world Seamer would like to see major business clusters develop in suburbs such as Monash, where people could live and work locally. This would avoid some of the drawbacks of dense inner-city life: inflexibility, crowded public transport and public spaces.
“This really would be the best of both worlds,” he says.
Since 2018, the Victorian Government has been piloting “20-minute neighbourhoods”, where most daily needs are within walking distance. Participating suburbs include Strathmore, Croydon South and Sunshine West.
By 2050, it wants to create a city of such neighbourhoods. The philosophy is that people should be able to live where shops, parks, schools and health services are within 800 metres (a 20-minute walk from home and back again).
Professor Billie Giles-Corti, the director of the Healthy Liveable Cities Group at RMIT, says the pandemic has underscored the importance of this concept.
She says those who live close to local shops, parks and cafes have been the most fortunate during lockdown: “There has been a resurgence of living locally and not having to drive to the big-box shopping centres.”
Living locally also means people are less reliant on public transport, which is not ideal during a pandemic.
Giles-Corti says if everyone continues to work from home after lockdown – even if it is just one or two days a week – it would dramatically reduce congestion and pressure on public transport.
High streets would also be reinvigorated, with people working from home likely to visit local cafes when they need a break.
Last week the Victorian government announced four major construction projects – including Australia’s tallest building in Southbank and a 300-unit apartment complex in Flemington – to help pull Victoria out of the expected deep economic slump caused by COVID-19.
“It’s alarming to me that we are talking about more highrise as a solution to digging ourselves out of this crisis,” Giles-Corti says.
She believes there needs to be a conversation about apartment guidelines which would emphasise the importance of balconies and places for children to play.
“Tiny box apartments in the city are not the answer to the way people should be living.”
Conversely, she says low-density living is not sustainable and leads to other problems such as traffic congestion.
“Sprawling suburbs have no amenity – people are too spread out and they can’t be provided with local services. We need density but we need to get density right. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
For some years now Melbourne’s growing pains have seen the city rethink the amount of space that cars commandeer in the CBD.
Before the pandemic, nearly 90 per cent of all trips made in the Hoddle Grid were on foot, but just 26 per cent of street space was allocated to footpaths.
The council last year endorsed ambitious plans to halve CBD traffic over 10 years.
Its strategy includes widening and decluttering footpaths and closing Melbourne’s “Little” streets (Little Collins, Little Bourke, Little Lonsdale, Little La Trobe) to cars at different times of the day to give pedestrians priority.
The council is also investigating whether it can deliver 44 kilometres of bike lanes in four years rather than 10.
Lord Mayor Sally Capp is not one to waste a crisis.
She says the pandemic has highlighted the importance of prioritising pedestrian and cycling infrastructure and increasing the city’s green canopy.
The council is capitalising on empty streets to fast-track some of its projects, including converting street parking bays into motorcycle parking spaces to declutter footpaths.
It will also make use of a quiet city to begin restoration work on Queen Victoria Market’s historic open-air sheds.
“Some parts of our business we can’t do anymore – libraries and leisure centres are shut – so we can redeploy resources, whether people or money, and focus on some of the capital works,” Capp says.
“This crisis really focuses our mind on what our priorities are – we need to get things done while we can.”
For Capp one of the most extraordinary outcomes of the health crisis has been the emphasis placed on finding accommodation for the homeless.
Last month the state government pitched in $6 million to help homelessness agencies find temporary housing. Disused aged care centres are also being repurposed so they can house homeless people who contract the coronavirus or need to self-isolate because of it.
As of April 10, 529 rough sleepers across the state had found temporary homes – including 150 in Melbourne’s city centre.
“The overwhelming majority now have accommodation and are receiving daily support and meals,” Capp says.
“Often discussions around homelessness seemed insurmountable because of the complexity. This is one of the most amazing examples of what is actually possible.”
The challenge, of course, is what happens when this is all over.
“How do we make sure the short-term response to the homeless becomes something permanent in terms of housing and welfare?” says urban planner Andrea Cook.
Economist Saul Eslake has suggested that in Victoria – where social housing as a percentage of total housing stock is low – home-building was an ideal focus point to lift the economy.
Cook, Capp and Giles-Corti would also like to see social housing form part of any COVID-19 economic stimulus package.
“Part of the issues around homelessness is the stigma from the wider community,” Cook says.
In the past, she says, there has been a backlash, with some baulking at having rooming houses or social housing in their neighbourhoods.
“These challenges require really careful deliberative processes around how we resolve these conflicts,” Cook says.
“I would love to see a more equitable city emerge on the other side of the pandemic.”