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16 April 2020

Learn lessons from our sudden reality

Opinion piece written by UDIA WA CEO Tanya Steinbeck, published in The West Australian.

As we head into another week of being at home in what we now call “iso”, due to the far reaching implications of the “rona” (spending more intense time with my children, I am now up to speed on the latest COVID vernacular) — we are seeing the impact on urban design play out. Dog walkers, bike riders, driveway drinkers and virtual workplaces abound in a pandemic-driven shift to connecting and activating our local streets and neighbourhoods. Like London in the 1850s, when the cholera outbreak prompted major sewerage infrastructure upgrades and innovation, or the Plague in the 1300s that brought about immense societal change in Europe, the current pandemic is already shifting our social and economic focus from a globalist to a more localised perspective. Perhaps most significantly, we are experiencing a greater appreciation for our local businesses, our takeaway coffee, public realms, streetscapes, and the spaces we can still enjoy while maintaining a safe social distance.

As Perth’s urban growth continues over the coming years, this current experience only highlights the importance of strategic urban planning that facilitates walkable neighbourhoods that blend appropriate density with high quality, usable open spaces to exercise, enjoy and connect.

Our urban places must be in tune with our fundamental need for connection with others, with locally owned businesses and amenities within walking or cycling distance and public places where we can come together safely.

We must also be attuned to our society becoming increasingly comfortable (tracksuit pants and business shirts are the norm on Zoom) working from home and for many, being more productive while doing so.

If the pendulum swings towards a more geographically dispersed home-based workforce, who are working together and highly efficient using our rapidly improving digital infrastructure — what does that mean for the future of our city, suburbs and how we design our homes?

Every day that we continue to operate in a COVID-19 impacted social and economic environment, our behaviour, values and expectations are shifting and evolving.

What meant an awful lot to us pre-pandemic may seem inconsequential now. And equally, what may have seemed unimportant before now all of a sudden means much more — and I dare say the impact on us as individuals and as families of the design of our local neighbourhoods now falls in that category.

This provides planners and developers an opportunity to engage with our community on what the future looks like — perhaps with a silent majority now seeing the value in being more vocal.