Lessons from Isolation
What lessons have we learnt from living in isolated conditions, that we can apply in a post-COVID future?
I have lost complete track of the days and weeks since we started this journey of living in isolated conditions. I am writing this from my desk at home, as has been the case with all my work and studies for the past five months (wow!). The time spent at home has given me the opportunity to reflect on the importance of the urban spaces we share, and more particularly the spaces within the 5km radius every individual in Melbourne is currently confined to.
This blog will examine what I have learned in this period of isolation. Drawing on my experiences in making do with the facilities within my ‘5km’ reach, and, creating opportunities to discover my local area in ways that were not previously of interest to me. It has also prompted me to take a realistic, and, also unfortunately, rather a pessimistic look at where the urban realm is headed, and how it must adapt in challenging conditions.
The first lesson I will be taking with me into a post-COVID world, is reserving more time to go for a walk or run. Over the last several months I have pushed myself to become more familiar with my natural environment; the many paths and tracks that are accessible to me. I believe I didn’t fully appreciate the local parks on my doorstep, made even more valuable when a limit was set on the distance I could walk or when a curfew was instated.
In a world where most of my day is spent inside staring at a screen, because I am working from home or just trying to kill time, being outside breaks up the day.
It allows me to have a short glimpse of the outside world and, maybe, some social interaction through a chance encounter that I would otherwise be deprived of by being confined to home. A Zoom meeting can only do so much. Even though it is certainly possible post-COVID that interacting with our colleagues via a screen is going to be part of our daily working lives for some time to come. The same can also be said of living with family and friends or others.
Getting out of the house to clear your head has well-known immediate and long-term mental health benefits, as well as providing implicit physical health benefits. Urban Designers and Planners at local and State levels should look to maximize the positive effects parks and the outdoors have on our mental health by highlighting the natural wonders available to us in even the most densely populated urban centres.
The second lesson I have learnt is observing how effective our public communal hands-free utilities and technologies are, and where and how they can be improved. The simple COVID hygiene practices we have quickly adopted have had many practical implications. Consider the frequency in which we now need to wash and sanitize our hands and use personal protective equipment (PPE).
The basic facility technologies we regularly use in public spaces such as drinking fountains and toilets now need to be replaced with hands-free/touch-free surfaces and interfaces. For those living in apartments and townhouses with shared entryways, we now need touch-free technologies to reduce the number of shared surfaces and interaction points.
Since we do not know how long the pandemic will continue to impact our lives, adaptive strategies such as these must be considered as necessary for future outbreak prevention.
Finally, with what may seem like the antithesis of good urban design, we should, for the time being, bolster our connections to personal spaces.
It is highly possible that a shift may occur, from designing spaces that maximise public usage to designing spaces that focus on an individual’s spatial needs.
Whilst this should not be the approach towards all development, this shift would make sense, at least on a more personal and human level for the near future. It is possible that the potential for future outbreaks, along with the current trends of a reduced level or lack of activity in our shopping malls and meeting places, will adjust the focus of how we activate streetscapes and urban centres, from an urban design perspective.
Unfortunately, current economic conditions may see local councils needing to save dollars, and private developers investing elsewhere. Resources and money will be cut, as they always are in times of recession, from public infrastructure and amenities.
This has a snowballing affect with many businesses, such as international firm Google, having gone on the record to say their staff will be required to work from home until the end of 2021. It is likely more and more people will need to develop home offices and personal spaces, at the expense of living-rooms, dining-rooms and outside areas, to fulfill and reflect what they miss and possibly now appreciate more about their former workplace and public spaces.
Therefore, it may be up to individuals, not our councils or the private sector to revive community and the vibrancy of urban life.
Perhaps a type of guerrilla urbanisation of spaces, on a small scale, and through our screens, should become our focus for now and for some time to come
Author: Alex is a graduate of Urban Planning and Design from Melbourne University. His role as an Urban Designer & Planner at Gerard Coutts & Associates involves conveying site analysis information, providing urban design solutions to clients and the development of mapping, plans and infographics.