How cities will change post-pandemic and what it means for communities

For hundreds of years, cities have responded to pandemics. From the Black Death to Ebola, cities have always responded – for good or worse – to sickness. 

Our continual tinkering with urban spaces is ever-evolving. Cities work because of the economies of scale and infrastructure benefits that provide for so many citizens simultaneously, and it’s been this way for a few decades.

As our cities have grown, we have made decisions, with good intention, to ensure liveable and thriving communities. Before March 2020, my train journey to work from Parramatta to Town Hall was 25 minutes. I put on nice clothes (and sometimes heels) and was among thousands of people on the western line doing the round trip daily.

These things that work well in good times have changed overnight, and we saw empty airports and city streets. There are things that made cities great, that allowed as many people as possible to live, work and play, that may no longer be relevant.

Jack Shenker recently wrote about how “pandemics have always shaped cities”, and cities designed after coronavirus could radically change forever.

“One of the most pressing questions that urban planners will face is the apparent tension between densification – the push towards cities becoming more concentrated, which is seen as essential to improving environmental sustainability – and disaggregation, the separating out of populations, which is one of the key tools currently being used to hold back infection transmission,” he writes.

In another recent article, researchers Silvia Tavares and Nicolas Stevens highlighted how good urban planners should be helping to fight infections by maximising sunlight and ventilation, allowing for microclimates and wide-open spaces.

It’s not all gloomy – The University of New South Wales (UNSW) released a thought piece about the rediscovery of the 20-minute neighbourhood, through the eyes of Professor Linda Corkery. We are on the precipice of living in a time where the benefits of living and working close to home with walkable and bikeable services, and less car usage.

A story of mass exodus before the data is available

We have always used research to understand communities, but coronavirus has challenged everything about the way we conduct research. Some city centres are deserted. Public spaces are now used in very different ways. A mass exodus from Sydney is rumoured to be on the cards.

Although the data is yet to emerge on who is making the shift, many people are trying it out. Brigid Delaney wrote an excellent article about the lack of research tracking shift out of cities to regional areas – traditionally sought during economic downturns – but there’s highly visible hashtags and Instagram audiences ripe for the pickings. 

I’ve heard of some highly skilled workers seeing this as an opportunity to leave the city. They’re looking to properties in the Southern Highlands. My friend who runs the family farm in regional NSW had continual visitors for five weeks.

When I worked in regional Australia, the elusive holy grail was to attract skilled young people to contribute to communities growth and development. This means working remotely and living regionally, may finally be a viable option for many people – young people especially.

Conducting research is a challenge

Market and social researchers have shared how difficult it is to get people’s attention – even with lucrative incentives – early in the pandemic. People are distracted (and now back into level three lockdown if you’re in Melbourne). They are home schooling, working out a new routine, trying to do a million things, through lockdown.

Next Gen Engagement completed recent research about post-coronavirus engagement with communities about infrastructure. The financial pressure and economic hardships experienced by people means they are laser-focused on land acquisition and energy pricing.

There are now even greater expectations of government intervention in times of crisis, as Sara Bice and Kirsty O’Connell write: “as much as Australia is eager to get back to life as normal, infrastructure projects and policymakers will be engaging with individuals and communities who have gone through unprecedented changes and who are likely to be under ongoing pressure.”

We’re still fighting for our community’s attention and to have their say on issues that impact them. They’re stressed and sometimes we don’t know how to reach them.

What can we do?

Given the changes that are happening so fast, as a consultant experienced in stakeholder and community engagement, here are my top four thoughts on how we can harness the changes to our cities, and bring our communities on the journey, for good.

  1. Taking the time to rediscover our communities
    Many of us have discovered a greater sense of community, and this is important right now. Virtual communities are on the increase. I don’t know about you, but my Facebook group usage and blog readership is at a high right now. There is a virtual support group for everything. Getting to know neighbours is a thing again.

    Building our communities takes time. This article by Sally Carlton provides insight into how rebuilding after the Christchurch earthquake legislated deep community engagement, but the pace demanded by rebuilds of this natural disaster had a very different timeline. Perhaps the longer coronavirus timeline, at least before a vaccine is found, will have us working more creatively, more deeply and more closely with our communities to find joint solutions and with better outcomes. This year, I’m privileged to work with Sydney Water, with the resources, time, and capacity what I’m quietly confident is long-term and best-practice work with communities.

  2. Asking good questions
    We are often quick to jump to solutions rather than thinking deeply about the problem. Asking honest questions, asking good questions. It’s coming from a place of empathy, where 'we’d like to understand you’ is a key part of the discussion. And it’s not just the question, it’s treating people with respect and kindness when you ask these questions.

    Deep engagement, good engagement, takes time and requires building trust. It’s not just a one-off survey. Keeping track of community sentiment. We’ve noted now preoccupation has swung around from water security to the environment, and firmly into the ‘public health’ court.

  3. Flexibility of design 
    There is a great article about how New York has launched it’s ‘open streets’ program allowing outdoor dining on streets and to be opened up to cyclists and pedestrians in areas that have been dominated by traffic in the past. This article details how homeless are occupying vacant rental properties in LA during the crisis.

    One of our clients, Western Sydney Parklands Trust, is trialling an exclusive pedestrian-friendly loop in historic Parramatta Park. Going car-free has been a long-term strategic goal and can now be tried out with the community, with great results. As our cities evolve to cope with the crisis, flexible design is key.

  4. Working with the depth of diverse communities
    Working more with leaders in communities where English is a second, third or fourth language is more important than ever.

    See this article published recently sharing stories of the tower lockdown in Melbourne. Harnessing energy and commitment, the tower’s residents translated information sheets into 10 languages in 24 hours. In the article, Dr Chis Lemoh and other experts call for more deep work with community leaders to assist with messaging and communications to diverse communities, treated as allies and true partners during this unprecedented time.

    During our engagement work with our client Jemena over the last two years, we worked with the Ethnic Communities Council, with those who knew best, the culture and the language. We worked with newly arrived communities around gas bills and to understand these customers’ long-term interests and priorities.

What’s next?

People in our communities are already unsettled, they might already be suffering job losses, health issues or financial stress. Now more than ever, we need good minds, good communicators, empathy, open and honest discussions and a customer-focused approach.

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