Inside Story

Making space

What does the coronavirus mean for Australian cities?

Sarah Barns 30 March 2020 1410 words

Accelerating the shift? Dawid Tatarkiewicz/Alamy

Public squares and downtown shopping strips are nearly empty. The roar of traffic is subdued; neighbourhoods are left with birdsong and the sounds of children playing in backyards. Trains, trams and buses once bursting with rush-hour commuters are running close to empty.

Quite suddenly, doing one’s daily work no longer means long and frustrating commutes across sprawling metropolitan regions. Most offices are shut. The bars are shut, the clubs are empty, the city promenades are deserted. Many people find themselves out of a job, their gigs cancelled, their shifts gone, their employee status furloughed.

And so the dynamic rhythms of an urbane, social, inner-city life are suddenly and radically compressed — confined to a walk in the park, perhaps, a cycle around safer streets, a dash to the supermarket for essentials, and quite possibly many more trips to the biscuit cupboard.

This time, we know, will pass, but we don’t know quite when. In the meantime, how we see how our cities will need to change. Mapping and reporting a city’s rhythms over coming months will require a shift in how we think about the role and purpose of our urban spaces.

In recent years, cities have been powerhouses of the global economy. The “triumph of the city” — in Edward Glaeser’s famous turn of phrase — has been evidenced in the greater productivity and innovation that results from proximity and density.

But we now face an uncertain era in which many of the usual indicators — economic output, occupancy rates, congestion, employment — tell a story of sudden decline, precarity and isolation.

Density suddenly looks dangerous. Gathering may breed sickness.

Over the coming months, and perhaps even years, as we look ahead to uncertain recovery periods, the indicators used to judge how well a city is performing will likely stay dire. In the meantime, we can expect to see the emergence of different ways of living in cities together. Perhaps, too, we might even find better ways of valuing these things.

As the urbanist Richard Sennett reflected in his 2015 book Building and Dwelling, “the built environment is one thing; how we dwell in it another.” The urban economy has taken a huge hit: yet here we remain, in densely packed neighbourhoods, dwelling together.

Many of us find ourselves living much more locally. Gone are the frenetic dynamics of a centrifugal city that sees office workers from across a metropolitan region journeying in and out of central business districts.

At the same time, parks are busier than ever, for now, as many of us have been forced to trade regular trips to the gym for a jog, a bike ride or a skate. The search is on for local walks with not too many people, a secret beach or river run — staying away from popular places and looking for the least-worn tracks.

Cyclists find themselves on much safer streets; air quality is improving. With urban traffic down by a quarter or more, the opportunities for active transport are greater than ever. Der Spiegel reports the German government recommending cycling in order to maintain safe social distancing but also to strengthen lungs, lower blood pressure and clear airways. Perhaps governments can accelerate this shift in Australian cities too?

Dwelling together, while maintaining social distancing, provokes us to discover ways to congregate in novel ways. Residents of an apartment block in Waterloo, Sydney, gathered on balconies to join two opera singers in a rendition of “I Still Call Australia Home,” no doubt inspired by similar scenes on balconies in Italy. In the coming weeks we’ll no doubt see more experiments in community singing.

Some people are trading hectic travel schedules for closer observations of home lives. As one suddenly stranded-at-home sociologist posted on Twitter: “Things you notice on a medium-density housing balcony in #partiallockdown: bubbles floating by; a man dancing with his toddler in a bedroom; a woman skipping with rope on her 7th floor balcony; the smell of delicious food being cooked.”

Sound enthusiasts are trading novel recordings of their neighbourhoods quietened under lockdown; gardening stores report spikes in seedling sales as neglected vegetable patches are tended to with new vigour. Kind-hearted neighbours are doing letter drops offering to assist the elderly with shopping errands.

Local governments have begun to play a critical role in supporting community resilience. Major city councils and arts-funding organisations have launched new grant programs for artists who have lost gigs, reallocating future initiatives and reprioritising spending.

Can local governments follow this lead to free up funds to support vital new community initiatives? What might these initiatives look like, in a world of social distancing?

Place management and placemaking — the creative programming of public spaces that has flourished in recent years — can’t be “activating” spaces to bring a crowd, but perhaps other methods can be used to forge connections between people living together in neighbourhoods. This is a time when community resilience is vital.

In a Covid-19 world placemaking may mean helping neighbours congregate and connect digitally, curating community events online, or using public spaces to promote the services being offered by local businesses.

Combined with digital infrastructures and tools, social-distancing measures have accelerated our migration into virtual spaces. Call volumes are up 50 per cent in recent weeks, broadband demand up by 40 per cent. Dropouts are common as telecommunications demand skyrockets.

Social distancing has left us hustling on the information superhighway like never before, alt-tabbing IRL over to the URLs — especially to videoconferencing via Zoom, Houseparty, Skype, FaceTime or Google Hangouts.

Our social media platforms have become vital digital public squares, places for gathering and sharing news of the day. All-night dance parties are planning upcoming streamed events. Yogis and Pilates instructors are streaming one-on-one and group classes. Digital platforms like Slack are seeing spikes in new paid customers unlike anything seen before. Coronavirus will no doubt act as an accelerant for new habits for remote working. Will the sudden pivot towards teleworking take hold?

Likewise, new digital tools and apps enabling citizens to report symptoms and track local coronavirus cases are springing up. Stopping the community transmission of coronavirus will require more vigilant tracking of cases, and tools like bluetooth and mobile GPS allow those with suspected symptoms to report their cases, and where they are, so community members can better judge their risks when out in public.

Will such efforts at sousveillance — which essentially turn surveillance from a top-down activity to one enacted voluntarily, from below, by citizens — encourage a move towards more community-based, crowdsourced care, facilitating greater awareness of those who are struggling with health or accessibility issues in your area? Or will we see more acceptance of data-tracking by authorities for health-related, or insurance, or other disciplinary purposes? Time will tell, but perhaps we can be hopeful about how localised data might be used for good, not only for the benefit of multinationals.

Perhaps, for a brief spell, we can also wonder what a world of slow cities might look like. Environmental activists have long argued for limits to growth in order to protect vital ecosystems and to slow rising carbon emissions.

As city productivity measures plummet, we can also look to the ideas of “degrowth” activists, who see in the topography of the Australian suburban form abundant opportunities for slower, more sustainable cities. While material wealth may be less abundant, can communities learn to adapt existing public spaces for local needs like agriculture, food waste or sharing cooperatives?

During the second world war, “victory gardens” sprang up across Australian cities to increase the volume of local food production. Even after threats to agriculture supply dissipated, home gardens and gardens in parks were maintained and supported by local governments to support community morale. We might envisage similar changes to our urban fabric over the coming years.

In these past weeks, we’ve witnessed how vulnerable our densely populated cities are to sudden shock. Coronavirus may not only force us into domestic isolation for months; it may also leave our cities poorer, and growth rates lower.

Perhaps we can start looking for ways to better value the role played by city spaces in supporting measures of health and wellbeing. If this global pandemic reminds us of anything, it’s that imaginative and creative responses to crisis will always emerge — and maybe even thrive — at the local level, in a park or street or community space near you. Perhaps this is a time for us to discover the art of dwelling, not just building. •