What has COVID-19 revealed about the liveability of our homes and neighbourhoods?

Examining the impacts of ‘living locally’ in different contexts

Last updated 12 May 2020

Even though some Australian states and territories are reducing the rules for people to quarantine themselves at home, the COVID-19 pandemic is revealing just how liveable, or otherwise, our homes and cities actually are.

With large numbers of people working from home, and people being required not to venture too far or too often beyond their local neighbourhoods, the design of housing and the liveability of neighbourhoods have become increasingly important to people’s everyday lives.

Domestic comfort and health

Homes being occupied by more householders for longer periods of time means the design, layout and thermal comfort of houses and apartments has become increasingly relevant.

The shortcomings of small apartments are highlighted by isolation—apartments need adequate physical space, daylight, ventilation, acoustic and visual privacy, some access to sunlight, and an appropriate outlook.

During lockdown, many people need to dedicate a proportion of their home to work activities, where they can concentrate effectively, particularly so if they share with family or housemates (who may or may not be working and who have a right, as legal occupants of the dwelling, to have their own quiet workspace or even to make a noise).

It’s also important that people working at home and using computers for long periods of time have access to ergonomic desks, chairs and workspaces so as to increase their comfort and reduce potential workplace injuries. One example is the long-term use of laptop computers, which can be convenient and seem only to require a small workplace, however they can cause people to adopt damaging poor sitting postures. Instead, having a quiet space where one can sit and use a height adjustable screen separate to the laptop (maybe in conjunction with an external keyboard) has become more important as we spend more time working from home.

The thermal comfort and energy efficiency of homes also becomes particularly apparent and important when people are at home for long periods of time, as homes that use energy and water efficiently mean occupants can have improved health and wellbeing while paying lower utilities bills. AHURI research reported on a Sustainability Victoria study from 2010 which targeted low-income households and found that households whose homes were retrofitted with draught proofing, top-up insulation, energy efficient lighting, and water efficient shower hoses saved, on average, 9 per cent of their electricity and 16 per cent of their gas costs each year, worth approximately $120 in 2010 (approx. $145 in 2019).

For households who are renting in the private market, encouraging landlords to upgrade the energy efficiency of the dwelling can be difficult, as rental property investors often don’t believe that these costs can be recouped through higher rentals. A study of households who took up the Federal Government’s Home Insulation Program in 2009 shows that, in Victoria and Tasmania, 238,318 owner occupiers insulated their homes but only 28,721 rental properties had insulation installed.

While living in a cold home is a common experience of Australians across all income brackets, research  shows that two thirds of homes were too cold for good health, but that many householders were not aware of the risks. Being cold can pose significant health risks, potentially putting vulnerable householders at increased risk of respiratory diseases. Indeed, almost seven per cent of deaths in Australia from 1988 to 2009 were attributable to cold weather and less one per cent to heat.

Access to open spaces

The pandemic lockdown has reinforced the necessity of having sufficient public open spaces (such as parks and reserves) available within walking distance, especially for people living in high density residential buildings. Because apartments and other small dwellings often have very little or sometimes no outside space, residents have flocked to local green spaces for healthy exercise and an escape from the confines of indoor living.

As with any finite resource, there can be inherent conflicts in how people use public parks, with some people wanting to play active ball sports (which can take up a large amount of area) and others wanting to sit quietly.

Planning for the appropriate provision and adequate availability of quality public outdoor spaces is essential in high density contexts but may not always be adequate. Policies to ensure all residents of urban areas have access to enough available open space (i.e. not grounds restricted to sporting clubs etc.) would help to create healthy local places that can enhance local communities and neighbourhoods.

Access to appropriate social infrastructure

The need for people to stay home and in their local neighbourhood for essential shopping (so as to help reduce the wide spreading of the coronavirus) has re-affirmed the importance of strong local communities and the need for appropriate neighbourhood social infrastructure.

Social infrastructure is the term for a range of community places, spaces and facilities including: community centres; meeting spaces; sports pavilions; libraries; kindergartens; senior citizen’s centres; and health centres. These community assets often play central and multiple roles in these communities, and can help to build social cohesion and identity, which help foster community resilience in times of stress, such as natural disasters.

It is also appropriate that for social infrastructure to be thought of as local it is within a walkable distance. This distance, of course, can vary with individuals’ levels of fitness, age, time constraints, as well as ability to cope with weather (e.g. too hot, too cold, raining etc.). Older research in the US assumed that the distance that ‘the average American will walk rather than drive’ was 400 meters (0.25 miles or a 5-minute walk), however more recent research shows the mean walking-trip length and duration in the US population were estimated to be 980 metres (0.61 miles) and 12 minutes in 2009.  This distance fits better with the promoted idea of walkable destinations usually being within 800 metres of the home.

Urban planning policies that focus on liveable neighbourhoods with walkable destinations have the potential to promote the health and wellbeing of residents by encouraging recreational walking leading to a stronger sense of community where residents feel safer.

Unfortunately, social infrastructure such as hospitals, health services and medical centres, are inequitably distributed across metropolitan areas in Australian cities.  For example, the rapidly growing suburbs on the edges of Melbourne have on average a significantly lower access to social infrastructure.  This lack of social infrastructure impacts the liveability of these areas and negatively affects the health and wellbeing of residents. Access to healthcare infrastructure is even more limited in regional and remote areas of Australia, as, for example, ‘a person may need to visit two specialists who are located in two different centres, adding to the cost and time required to access these services’.