There is no doubt Australians’ mental health and quality of life are suffering during the nationwide shutdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
If Australia’s existing ‘shutdown’ turned into a ‘lockdown’ in localities where a spike in the growth of COVID-19 infections occurs, our ability to cope could be seriously diminished.
Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom, Iran and India are in lockdown with severe restrictions.
In Italy, for instance, residents can only leave their homes for four essential reasons, accompanied by a declaration form.
UK residents are only allowed to leave their homes to shop for necessities, one period of exercise each day and medical needs, while Russian residents can only walk their pets within 100 metres of their home.
In Australia, Victoria and Western Australia have enforced some of the most stringent restrictions in the country.
Although some restrictions in WA were recently lifted, I am concerned for the vast numbers of residents in low-density, single-use suburban housing developments that are not well-connected or walkable.
Many of these areas compel residents to use a car to access essential services and products and exercise. This would be even more difficult in a lockdown scenario.
If they haven’t already, governments should be assessing ways they can improve the liveability of all Australians in such a scenario, without risking their exposure to COVID-19.
These are improvements the urban planning profession has been attempting to introduce for some time. Current events provide the opportunity to introduce novel approaches to addressing these matters.
Adopting measures to prioritise pedestrians over vehicles, to ensure essential products and services are in close proximity to the home, and allowing property owners to create affordable detached workplaces are a good start.
Here are the six moves I believe local and state bovernments could introduce to improve Australia’s liveability in a shutdown or future lockdown.
1. Temporarily close selected streets to cars to enable residents to exercise at a safe distance
With gyms, sporting centres, playgrounds, beaches, and even some coastal walks closed, councils could consider designating signature streets for access other than by car to enable residents to run or walk daily along generous pathways.
Australia could consider following New York’s action in March, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city would open up thoroughfares for walking and cycling in each of the five boroughs to reduce the number of large gatherings occurring in local parks.
Australian councils could nominate signature streets with substantial tree canopies, lighting, and continuous, uninterrupted routes to promote safe and accessible exercise areas.
This action would also reduce recent heavy cycling and pedestrian movement on existing popular walkways, such as coastal esplanades, which are often only 1.5m to 2m wide and inadequate for prams, pedestrians, and bikes to all be accommodated on the one pathway.
2. Allow property owners to build affordable detached workspaces or convert garages in their rear yards
Employees might be forced to work from home until at least October.
As many parents are not in a position to work productively around kids, in shared houses or small apartments, councils could temporarily relax legislation to allow property owners to build affordable granny flats, demountable units or studios above garages, or convert their garages into offices.
This will enable family members to work from home comfortably during months of lockdown. The introduction of these separate micro workspaces could also assist young entrepreneurs to start up businesses.
3. Allow tax-free subleasing of residential rooms with external access
For property owners who already have rooms on their properties with separate external access – such as studios atop garages or backyard granny flats – the government could also temporarily relax legislation to allow existing owner-occupiers, and even tenants, to sublease those rooms.
4. Allow for multiple pop-up essential shops and services close to residents
Residents of a neighbourhood having to visit a single remote major supermarket or shopping area to purchase essentials makes social distancing a challenge, and often necessitates driving.
Governments could relax planning provisions to allow small businesses to set up ‘pop-up’ retail shops – such as market stalls and food trucks – in multiple areas in any neighbourhood, including within residential streets.
This would provide for localised food purchases, alleviating the need to drive to major retailers, boost more small business trading, and ensure that residents do not travel far from home. It will also enable local businesses to have a greater chance of survival in this financially challenging climate.
5. Boost eBike capacity
eBikes are usually offered more readily in urban areas close to the city centre, but they should be introduced to low-density suburban growth areas during a lockdown.
Cycling guarantees social distancing, and eBikes are an excellent low-cost alternative to purchasing a car and can cover similar distances.
In New York City, where residents rely heavily on public transport, and which is now being avoided due to physical distancing, eBikes provide a sustainable transport alternative for residents in more remote locations.
A recent report by Deloitte revealed the potential for eBikes to cut journey times by two-thirds and they are well suited to all age groups as they provide assistance when climbing hills and carrying heavy loads.
ebikes also cover much longer distances than conventional bikes. On an e-bike, a rider can attain an average speed of 22 km/h, compared with the average 15km/h on a standard bike.
6. Enable residents to exercise more than once a day
Australia should not follow the UK by permitting residents only to leave their homes for exercise once a day.
Children, pets, and those who live in small, balcony-free apartments or share houses need to head outdoors more often.
Minimal time spent outside the confines of the home could also lead to an increase in social issues, such as domestic violence and an adverse impact on health and wellness.
Within low-density metropolitan areas, Australia’s increasing levels of obesity is increasing due to our heavy reliance on car transportation, a reluctance to mix land uses, and a reduced ability to walk to destinations.
- Mike Day is the Co-founder and Director of award-winning Australian urban planning and design practice RobertsDay and is also a fellow of the Planning Institute of Australia.