Lessons can be learned from the Covid-19 pandemic to design people-friendly buildings and cities that embrace the natural environment and make us more resilient to future pandemics.
But for now, misconceptions about self-isolation measures could be having a detrimental affect on our health, according to UNSW associate professor Paul Osmond.
The Built Environment lecturer says that in Australia, people shouldn't reinterpret the “stay at home” message to mean “stay inside”, unless they are under quarantine, and highlighted the importance of exposure to nature for health and wellbeing.
“We need nature, at a minimum for viewing, but ideally through immersion and interaction - particularly now, as a way of de-stressing and preserving mental health,” Osmond said.
Osmond refers to "nature-deficit disorder", a term coined by author Richard Louv in his non-fiction book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, which discusses the negative effects on human health when people are removed from nature.
Research shows there can be improvements for children in learning, and adults’ workplace productivity levels can increase when they have a connection to the natural world.
Osmond adds that being “sealed up inside a house or an apartment” can lead to ill-health due to poor air quality.
“It makes sense to head outdoors or open windows during these tighter restrictions, especially now while there is less pollution from industries and transport.”
“Even if it is just by walking down the street rather than in the park, at least you are seeing some green bits of biodiversity which helps with your overall mental health and wellbeing.”
Discussions and research have already begun about what the design of our buildings, cities and neighbourhoods will look like once Covid-19 begins to retreat, Osmond said.
“The question is, how do we draw lessons from this pandemic to design houses, office buildings and cities in a way which makes us more resilient to future pandemics, while also being more people-friendly?”
As a comparable historical example, Osmond cites the modernist architecture movement that grew from the lessons of the Spanish flu and earlier pandemics, such as cholera.
“The idea was cleanliness and a streamlined form, by getting rid of curlicues and ornamentation which would collect dust. And to bring more sunlight into houses to kill bacteria.”
Emerging from this pandemic, there is likely to be more emphasis on “living architecture”, such as green roofs and walls, and a step away from the reliance on air conditioning and heating in Australia.
“Ironically, a typical office building with the glazing and sealed windows derives from that modernist architecture movement with the requirement for heating and cooling,” he says.
“Before air conditioning, even in the hot Middle East, they were using wind catchers and water as cooling agents,” Osmond said.
“In colder climates, the use of thermal mass, such as heavy masonry construction, were a way to reduce heat loss in winter.”
So, here in Australia, Osmond said, we should make the most of the temperate climate, which for about two-thirds of the year is neither too hot nor too cold, and move towards better building design.
Osmond said this building design will be about minimising energy use, acknowledging climate change and about how we can live a lot healthier and happier in the future.
High carbon-dioxide levels in poorly-ventilated rooms can lead to “what is often called sick building syndrome" Osmond said, adding that a challenge in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic will be finding a middle ground between high-rise high density living and urban sprawl in our cities.
"Urban sprawl can lead to greater greenhouse gas emissions due to more people commuting to work, as well as destroying viable agriculture land on the outskirts of cities such as Sydney and Melbourne," Osmond said.
As an alternative, traditional terrace housing, townhouses and walk-up apartment buildings—often referred to as the ’missing middle’—could be considered.
“That way you also won’t get the same kind of problems that you can get in high-rise high-density cities where it’s difficult for people to physically distance themselves in a pandemic.”