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Recovery plan: What impact will Covid-19 have on planning for housing and neighbourhooods?

Words: Simon Wicks

In the first of a series of articles considering the impacts of the coronavirus on the way we plan our living environments, Simon Wicks asks whether a different approach to housing and public realm could provide greater resilience in a health crisis

There’s been a psychological change in the way in which we see our home,” Araceli Camargo explains. “It’s a literal physical shelter but it’s also become a mental shelter, a sanctuary; the only place where you can go, ‘OK, I can breathe’.”

Under lockdown, says the cognitive neuroscientist and founder of Centric Lab, the “utility” of our homes has changed. Hitherto, for many of us, our homes have been places where we would mostly eat and sleep. Now we’re working in them, working out in them, socialising in them (if only virtually), we’re educating our children in them and managing sickness and recovery in them.

But do our homes offer the flexibility of space and quality of utilities we need? Do they provide sufficient warmth, peace and ventilation, particularly to those recovering from respiratory illness?

Camargo, whose research investigates links between the design of living environments and mental and physical health, says the answer to these questions is a definite no. Her work is finding a distinct relationship between environmental stress and susceptibility to illness. The stresses she is looking at – noise, air and heat pollution, lack of ventilation and temperature regulation – are more common in areas of socio-economic deprivation.

“There’s a whole new sense of the way places impact on people and how people relate to places”

Research into Covid-19 hotspots appears to reinforce the point: Office for National Statistics coronavirus data released in late April revealed that people living in the most deprived 30 per cent of areas in England and Wales are more than twice as likely to die from Covid-19 than people living in the richest 10 per cent of areas. People in cities are more than six times as likely to die than people in rural areas, with the London boroughs of Newham, Brent and Hackney the worst hit places, along with parts of the West Midlands.

As reported by the Science Media Centre, experts have offered potential explanations for the raw data, ranging from greater population density to residents of deprived areas being more likely to be key workers. But the scientists considered other areas, too. People in poverty are less able to shop online (because of internet and delivery costs) and more likely to keep shopping in person. There is also a correlation between living in these areas and the kind of underlying health conditions that can make a case of Covid-19 more severe.

“These areas also suffer from poor housing, nutrition and higher incidence of health conditions that might act to lower immunity,” observed Prof Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, and an Oxford University professor of evidence-based medicine.

Hear us speak at The Planner Live Online: Planning for post-pandemic recovery


29 June 20020, 11am The risks exposed: What Covid-19 is telling us about the way we plan and build our living environments

Hosted by The Planner's Simon Wicks, hear cognitive neuroscientist Araceli Camargo and chartered planner Dr Riëtte Oosthuizen explore the issues raised by the Covid-19 pandemic to kick off a week long series on free virtual events looking at how planners can help society recover from the damage wrought by the disease.

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See the schedule of events and book your place on the RTPI website: The Planner Live Online

A sense of detachment

Houses ought to protect us from external threats such as pollution and disease. But for many, they seem to be failing in this requirement. Furthermore, as Graham Marshall, founder of Prosocial Place and NHS Healthy New Towns Steering Group Member, says, the way that we design houses can also detach people from community. As such, lockdown has been an intense experience for some.

“There’s a whole new sense of the way places impact on people and how people relate to places,” he says. Speaking of people with conditions such as anxiety and depression that already create a sense of isolation, he notes that many “seem to be doing quite well because their lives haven’t changed that much. They are still quite isolated from people” but may have support strategies already in place.

Some, he says, appear to be “thriving” in lockdown – “they are quick to adapt and bounce around these things. They have a resilience”. It’s a third group that is causing him to worry. “There’s a group of people that didn’t know they had [underlying] problems and I think it’s going to impact on those people quite badly.”

There’s more. A lack of ‘cooling-off’ space in some homes may well be exacerbating conflict in relationships. It’s been widely recorded that calls to domestic violence helplines have gone up during lockdown.

“You start wondering about the quality of housing that we’re building,” remarks Prof Tim Townshend, professor of urban design for health at Newcastle University. “Do they exacerbate them [these underlying problems] – a lack of privacy, noise transference from adjacent properties, just the fact that we’re crammed into the smallest housing in Europe?”

In spite of space standards, we do build small houses. In 2014, Cambridge University found that UK new-builds averaged just 76m2 compared to 137m2 in Denmark. Research in 2017 by property company Sellhousefast.co.uk found that a “British” new-build three-bedroom averaged 88m2 – smaller, they said, than the stipulated minimum of 93m2.

“Co-living is probably the one recent trend that might be under a lot of focus post-Covid-19”

Then there’s the issue of access to private outdoor space, whether a garden or even a balcony. As one much-viewed social media video has shown, balconies not only offer access to outdoors, but also provide communal experiences while maintaining distance. In this case, residents of an apartment block danced on balconies as music was played in the courtyard below. Issues relating to size, adaptability and quality of housing long predate Covid-19 but are being thrown into relief by the virus. Planners – and others – have long made the case for giving wellbeing greater prominence in a rebalancing of the social, environmental and economic pillars on which planning rests.

Although voices calling for such a change have become louder, other forces that drive the way we plan our living environments may well be exacerbating the health inequalities that seem to be shown up by the statistics.

The growth of private rental, build-to-rent and co-living models, allied with a policy stress on densification that permits office-to-residential conversions without planning permission all present challenges to the size and adaptability of internal and external spaces, not to mention suitability of location.

The private rented sector has a problem with “over-occupation” of spaces, says Dr Riëtte Oosthuizen, head of planning for HTA Design, albeit “some inroads have been made over the last three years or so to regulate quality”. Furthermore, rules for rented accommodation may cover bedroom size, she says, but they neglect access to outdoor space.

“In the build-to-rent sector some purpose-built homes are provided without private external space, although these schemes do and should have shared facilities built in,” she explains. “It would be important for planning officers to ensure these schemes are located in areas with reasonable access to appropriately sized green spaces.”

She continues: “Co-living is probably the one recent trend that might be under a lot of focus post-Covid-19. These schemes are completely dependent on communal living with small private living units. They are sui generis and, as a result, are not (in London) subject to minimum size standards for homes.” Self-isolation in such a scheme could be “claustrophobic”, she concedes, although co-living may offer compensatory support networks.

Then there are the nationally described space standards. “New C3 schemes in London go through fairly rigorous assessments in relation to internal space standards and the provision of private external space. So unless it is a conversion, most recent schemes should have balconies. However, it has become the norm that the minimum space standards are also the maximum – it is perhaps time to review this trend.”Housing in parts of the UK may well be doing little to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in vulnerable populations. Can our wider neighbourhoods pick up the slack?

Neighbourhoods that nurture

Camargo notes that adequate ventilation for the circulation of clean air is a critical aspect of good health generally and especially in recovery from respiratory disease. But “if a home is in an area that has high levels of air pollution and they cannot open up windows…”

“If we can keep air pollution down that’s an option. That’s where the home and urban realm has to come together,” she urges. “We need to open up the urban realm, and make it comfortable for them to be in those spaces if they don’t have access to public space and garden space.”

The value of good, secure public realm to ‘surviving’ lockdown has been well attested. There are many accounts of people enjoying car-free streets and less polluted air as a result of the massive reduction in human activity brought on by the epidemic.

“It’s a great opportunity to bounce forward and do all the things that urban designers, planners and architects have been pent up about all these years”

“I live on a private road in Liverpool,” explains Graham Marshall. “At the end of the road there’s an old Victorian High Street, but not a main thoroughfare for the city. There’s a lot of poverty around here as well but it’s an almost perfect urban fabric – it’s just destroyed a bit by the heavy transport the highway engineers have imposed on the place. With that suddenly taken away, people are walking everywhere, discovering things they haven’t seen before; they’ve been fascinated by the level of birdsong and things.”

Lockdown has offered many a glimpse of something different from what has become the norm. For some it has been an intolerable experience, for others a strangely liberating one. Our homes and neighbourhoods have a role to play in either experience.

How many people will want to see their streets remain more or less traffic-free, post-Covid? How many will continue to walk and explore their neighbourhoods, ride bicycles, enjoy the unexpected incursions of nature, support the local businesses that have managed to stay operational? How many will want to continue working from home and forgo the time-consuming daily commute?

“It’s a great opportunity to bounce forward and do all the things that urban designers, planners and architects have been pent up about all these years – creating great cities where people thrive, not just where some people can make some short-term money,” says Marshall. Places where people are “able to develop some sense of meaning in their life. So it’s not always about work, but living in neighbourhoods where you can thrive.”

Thus far, in this beautiful spring, we have been living in a “grace period”, says Camargo. But if this epidemic were to be combined with the kind of flooding we saw earlier this year, crisis could become catastrophe. “Even when the pandemic is over, climate change is going to come,” she warns.

A better world?

Her point is that building more resilient and healthy homes and neighbourhoods is not a choice, but a necessity. But how realistic are spacious, adaptable houses, walkable neighbourhoods and access to green space given the development context: constraints on affordability driven by the UK land market; the focus on numbers that pressures volume builders into creating easily replicable, minimum standard housing; the policy preference for densification; and the focus in the UK economy on property as asset and investment?

There are good examples out there, many built by the same volume housebuilders that come in for so much flak. “Up here in the North East, we have the Staiths South Bank project [600 homes on a former industrial site] which was a collaboration between Wimpey Homes and the fashion designer Wayne Hemingway,” reports Townshend.

Here, “Malmo-esque” houses are arranged around open courtyards that catch the sun. Some are dedicated to children’s play, others to quiet contemplation, All are overlooked, creating a sense of observation that provides security. It could be intrusive, but isn’t, says Townshend – “there’s not a net curtain in sight”. It’s “very, very popular”.

Why isn’t everywhere built with such sensitivity? According to Townshend, volume housebuilders say it is “too complicated” to do so as a matter of course.

Oosthuizen cites the work of architect Peter Barber – featured in last month’s The Planner – where, for example, decking at the front of houses enables residents to sit, relax and interact with neighbours while still maintaining their own space. Yet, she says, developers tend to be reluctant to use space in this way.

“Double-banked corridors achieve more flats in the same space, although outlooks for some are poorer,” she explains, continuing: “Our obsession with achieving the BRE guidance for sunlight and daylight (which was not originally conceived with city living in mind) and back-to-back distances between 18 and 22 metres ensure we do not design places that encourage the interaction across balconies seen in Italy and Spain.”

"How do we densify intelligently so that it doesn’t cause these unintended human consequences? How do we design the urban realm to boost our immunity but also to stop the spread of viruses in a mechanistic way? We need systemic thinking"

As for density creating greater risk, she dismisses the idea. “Poor, non-human centred, developer-driven design is definitely the problem. We need to ensure access to good-quality open space, natural light, storage, flexibility in floor plan, adequate space for washing and drying of clothes, views of green space and trees, are all adequately integrated into the design of new homes.”

But how? Oosthuizen advocates policy change; Townshend says only deeper structural change will produce the kind of human-centred, resilient environments he would like to see. “We need to challenge the whole way in which we deliver housing in this country,” he adds, referring to “this persistent system that we’ve had of this oligarchy of companies which act as land banks and the way in which the cost of housing is dictated by the price of land. It’s complete madness. We really have to demand that something better is done.”

He is “dubious” that it will happen, however, because it’s “been demanded for a very, very long time”. Townshend is also acutely aware of the “flip side” – that volume housing developers can rightly point to demand for their product as a rationale for continuing to provide it as is.

“It’s a complex argument because people say, ‘If people are buying something, they want to be able to sell it on in a few years’ time’. They don’t want to buy anything too different because they think it might be challenging. Mortgage companies don’t like giving mortgages to things that are unusual.”

For the neuroscientist Camargo, the secret lies in taking a “holistic” approach to planning and design of living environments. This would involve calling on expertise that ranges from epidemiology to industrial engineering.

“You need all of these different types of brains in a room to go ‘What’s the best way to move forward?’ Industrial engineers are fascinating. You have to look at one element and the risk that it poses. High density, for example, solves a lot of problems. It means we can get to resources faster. But it also means all the pollutants becoming higher.”

So homes have to then mitigate pollution effectively. “How do we densify intelligently so that it doesn’t cause these unintended human consequences? How do we design the urban realm to boost our immunity but also to stop the spread of viruses in a mechanistic way? We need systemic thinking. We have to have all the expertise.”

Covid questions

This is the first of three features considering the ways in which Covid-19 is casting into relief the strengths and weaknesses in our living environments - as well as what can be done to make them more resilient to future challenges. Next month (July) we’ll be looking at the movement of people and goods; in the August issue we’ll be asking whether planning itself needs to be repurposed in the wake of Covid-19 and if so, how?

Simon Wicks is deputy editor of The Planner

Illustration | Mike Hall

Image credit | Alamy | Getty