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23/10/2020

Home comforts: What the lockdown stress test tells us about our homes and neighbourhoods

Tower Hamlets

The Covid-19 related lockdown provided a unique opportunity to 'stress test' our homes and neighbourhoods, to find out how well they support healthy, happy lives - or not. The results are extremely mixed, says Matthew Carmona, and there is much to learn

Lockdown shrank many of our worlds physically to our homes and their immediate neighbourhoods, yet the roles we needed to perform there expanded, from working from home, to home schooling, to shopping and exercise. 

Technology has helped to fill key gaps, leading some to ask whether we will ever fully return to the patterns of life that we saw in the pre-Covid era.  

Only time will tell, but lockdown provided a unique opportunity to stress test our homes and their immediate environments, to gauge whether they have supported our everyday needs and how we might need to design them or adapt them in the future to support happy and healthy lives.  

That was the purpose of Place Alliance’s  Home Comforts survey completed by 2,500 households across the UK during the early summer of 2020. 

Our experience of lockdown

The good news is that the majority felt comfortable in their homes (two thirds), satisfied with their neighbourhood (three quarters) and a bolstered sense of community during lockdown (five sixths). 

This still leaves significant populations with a much poorer experience.  If extrapolated across the UK, 11 million people were uncomfortable in their homes, 10 million felt no tangible change in community feeling, and three million suffered from poorly designed neighbourhoods that did not meet their basic everyday requirements.  

Owner occupiers were the most comfortable in their homes, satisfied with their neighbourhoods and received the strongest boost in community feeling. They were followed by private renters and, some margin behind, by social renters. 

This is explained partly by the finding that houses were more comfortable than flats, with apartment blocks becoming progressively less comfortable and offering a lower sense of community the higher they were off the ground. 

“The least comfortable dwellings, least supportive neighbourhoods and weakest sense of community correlated directly with the age of dwellings”

Perhaps most worrying was the finding that the least comfortable dwellings, least supportive neighbourhoods (for everyday needs), and weakest sense of community correlated directly with the age of dwellings. Why might this be?

Home factors

Access to private open space from the home was the strongest home design-based predictor of comfort. Space standards were also critical, and dwellings were noticeably more comfortable the more rooms there were per occupant. 

Related to this, good environmental conditions in the home were widely seen as fundamental, and alongside a physical lack of space, deficits in this regard were often cited as reasons why home working was challenging, particularly for social renters.

Neighbourhood factors

Proximity to a significant green space (within a five minute walk) was the strongest predictor of satisfaction with neighbourhoods during lockdown, with satisfaction dropping off markedly the further away open space was, and significantly when over ten minutes. 

“This research suggested a ten minute city should be the aspiration”

Further support for this five to ten minute experience of urban life was found in the need for local facilities to also be within easy reach of the home. Satisfaction peaked at five minutes and dropped away over ten minutes. There has been much talk during the crisis about the benefits of 15 or 20 minute cities. This research suggested a ten minute city should be the aspiration.

Looking forward

As we look likely to continue to spend more time in the home environment in the future, we need to build our homes and neighbourhoods as decent places where people wish to be. Significantly, each of the critical factors across home and neighbourhood scales are more likely to be substandard in new developments, in social housing, and in mid and high-rise apartment buildings.

We should learn from the stress test that lockdown has given our homes to build better living environments in the future and to retrospectively adapt those we are already living in today. 

This means decent space and environmental standards in the home, access to private open space (even if just to a balcony), walkable and cyclable neighbourhoods, convenient access to parks and local facilities (preferably within a ten minute walk), high quality streets and public spaces, and particular care to balance all these needs when building high and dense.

Matthew Carmona is professor of planning & urban design at the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL, and chair of Place Alliance

Photo | iStock

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