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Suburbia is partly a product of fears of disease prevalent in the late 19th century. What does this mean for our planning today in the wake of COVID-19?

There have been some challenging ideas recently about COVID-19 and how easy it is for the disease to spread in apartments and public transport.

However, according to Jago Dodson, Professor of Urban Policy and director of the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University,  statistical shortfalls make it difficult to draw substantial assessments of outbreak status in each place.

By this, he means there’s no consistent International reporting, and different levels of testing in each place, so it’s challenging to draw any concrete conclusions on rate of spread.

Most likely, population density is playing a role in transmission rates but it’s not the only factor. The stats so far already muddle this correlation, with densely populated places such as Hong Kong and Singapore managing the spread better than countries that have a more dispersed urban form, like the US, Canada and some parts of Europe.

On the flip side, high density cities such and Barcelona and Madrid aren’t faring so well.

There’s also the relationship between urban form and the key mitigation tactics used to curb the spread, social distancing and isolation, to consider.

For suburbanites, the argument is that having personal greenspace can provide a degree of resilience through the ability undertake recreation in your own home and grow food.

In higher density places, there’s more likely to be restrictions on access to green and open space. Australia so far has been lucky in this respect, despite losing access to some city beaches for flouting social distancing rules.

Again, there’s little research to prove people are coping better when they have ample private space compared to people who live in apartments. But Dodson says the anecdotal evidence suggests the former might be more comfortable.

So will we abandon apartments post-COVID-19?

Associate Professor Ben Harris-Roxas from the Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity at UNSW Sydney isn’t convinced that COVID-19 alone will see a shift back to suburbanisation, “but it might make people reconsider the desirability of some of the most high-density housing stock”.

“People won’t necessarily want to move to the country after this, but there will be an acute awareness that they may need more space,” he says.

“At a practical level people won’t want to be riding in lifts or touching shared surfaces as much, at least in the short term.”

High density living can still work, but it will cement the importance of ample, high quality public space.

“Public space won’t necessarily become off-limits. It’s still safe for people to be out and exercising, they just need to practice social distancing and avoid congregating in groups.

“If anything, COVID-19 is making people acutely aware of the need for nearby high-quality public spaces that make them feel connected with nature.”

John Brockhoff, national policy manager at the Planning Institute of Australia, agrees the pandemic has driven up the value of parks and other public spaces.

People who may have taken open space and green space for granted previously are now acutely aware of its influence on their health and wellbeing.

Brockhoff say that COVID-19 has served as a “pressure test” for urban planning trends, and highlighted deficiencies. Up the top is high density development that doesn’t have enough open space for everyone to enjoy safety and comfortably.

Green space might get more of a look-in when all of this is over

There’s no doubt public health will feature more prominently in planning decisions going forward.

Top of Brockhoff’s wish list for more resilient cities is for community infrastructure to secure a spot further up the value chain.

“We should look at community infrastructure like we look at pipes and roads, and not something that’s second class for when there’s a bit of money and space leftover.”

For this to happen, there will need to be more sustainable ways of raising money and spending on social infrastructure.

There will need to be holistic reform on the funding forces used to get green and community infrastructure in place, including development contributions and the “broader public purse”.

“To put it on the same footing we need to open the whole game up.”

But is suburbia really so bad?

Dodson points out that suburbia is, in part, a product of fears of disease prevalent in the late 19th century.

Planning regulations were devised with public health in mind – it was considered healthy to have fresh air circulating through, separation between dwellings, setbacks, lots of natural light, and larger dwellings sizes to reduce crowding.

The Spanish flu pandemic was not the only precursor to suburbanisation. Harris-Roxas argues that the two World Wars and the rise of the automobile “probably did more”. Middle-class aspirations to own a large, spacious home also played a role.

Basic design regulations have barely changed in the intervening years, according to Dodson, who also says the major liveability problems we’ve started to see in the suburbs were actually driven by the car.

He says the early suburban streets were designed for active transport – walking, cycling – and catching trains. The overlay of car-dependence, and streets and infrastructure that privileges cars as the dominant form of transport, are where the suburban model has gone awry.

“So we’ve ended up with this urban form and added a transport system that works against it.

“People don’t get the exercise, they aren’t walking around.”

As a result, from a health perspective, the suburbs are often compared to the higher density areas where walkability tends to be easier to achieve.

He says this is “partly missing the point of suburbia and its urban form.”

There’s already signs of the suburbs steering away from car-dependence, in the US at least, where Millennials are unable to afford homes in the pricey inner suburbs but are not willing to sacrifice walkable, mixed-use, interesting environments either. The result is a new village-like district that developers are calling “hipsturbia.”

But what about sprawl?

Dodson says that the problems of sprawl and environmental degradation can be mitigated with careful zoning land for development.

“Developers are very effective at allowing everywhere to be developed … these issues are how our suburban forms emerged historically.”

Some might head for the hills, but it’s people who can’t choose that we need to look after

PIA’s John Brockhoff says that the pandemic will prompt people to think differently about their housing options. For those lucky enough to afford their own home, the risk of another major health incident might be enough to prod them in the direction of a spacious home in the ‘burbs.

But this might not be reason enough for others, who might still prioritise living close to work and walkability over protection from future pandemics.

These people are likely to have enough money to select those high-density spots with “good bones”, such as access to community spaces, good public transport and essential services close by.

Brockhoff is most concerned about a third group of people who aren’t wealthy enough to be picky, who are most likely to end up in those undesirable high-density areas without enough parks and open space.

“We have an obligation to see that amenity is there for those people”.

It’s this group that are also most vulnerable to “knee jerk” decisions made out of fear that has prompted leaders around the world to cut back on public transport and close public spaces.

“It’s so important if you live in high-density areas that you have access to a whole range of benefits beyond your own four walls.”

Homes themselves might not be big or private enough for a post-pandemic world

Harris-Roxas from UNSW Sydney also says that COVID-19 will prompt people to start asking more from their parks and public spaces, but that’s not the only limitations of the built environment.

These conditions really put small footprint living to the test, and means that many high-density interior layouts “might not be ideal”.

“We might need more private, enclosed spaces within dwellings,” Harris-Roxas says.

The coronavirus may have highlighted this issue but it’s not the first time Harris-Roxas has had reservations about the health implication of the existing housing stock.

He and some colleagues worked with the City of Sydney and Sydney Local Health District several years ago to look at the health implications of the development of Green Square.

One challenge identified by the team was that larger family units were buying the homes than they were optimally designed for – apartments designed for single couples were often purchased by families with children and even elderly grandparents.

“These multi-generational families are now in isolation in dwellings designed with single people or couples in mind.”

Concerned for their safety, Harris-Roxas says people might feel more attracted to stand-alone dwellings.

“Courtyard houses might make a comeback.”

“People will start to consider ‘is this a place I can stay inside for two weeks, or even two months?’”

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  1. “presumably due to the effect of density” doing some very heaving lifting here Tony. Linking to an academic study does not forgive then just deciding the conclusion of a related phenomenon.

  2. There is a ratio of open space per person that will allow residents to get out of their home . Obviously many of our cities have passed this point in the pursuit of profits.

  3. Some of the highest density nations, Singapore, Japan and Korea seem to be coping best which seems to indicate that how people manage is more important than urban form. Also, don’t like the idea of living in a dispersed suburban city with bankrupted government that can’t provide services. Where are the hospitals? Suburbs might well work for elites, not so great for the general community.

  4. With regard to the role of density in epidemics, analysis of the SARS epidemic of 2002 found that population density was an explanatory factor for the spread of that epidemic (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5002496/). Due to that experience Hong Kong and Singapore made preparations to better cope with future epidemics. As a result there has been an initial low incidence of Covid-19 in those cities. But this has not levelled off and is continuing to climb, presumably due to the effect of density.