UNSW associate professor Paul Osmond says buildings and cities need to change after this pandemic and is urging people to soak up nature on balconies, gardens or exercise in parks during COVID-19.

“We need nature, at a minimum for viewing, but ideally through immersion and interaction,” the lecturer from UNSW Built Environment says.

“Particularly now, as a way of de-stressing and preserving mental health.” 

He refers to Nature-Deficit Disorder which was first mentioned by US author Richard Louv in his 2005 book titled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.

The non-fiction writer coined the term to enable talk about research which proved the negative effects on human health when people were removed from nature. 

Osmond says being surrounded by nature improves the immune system, and a person’s physical and mental health by alleviating issues such as stress and anxiety.

But being “somewhat sealed up inside a house or an apartment” can lead to ill-health due to the air quality, which is often poorer than the outdoors, he says. 

Osmond says indoor pollutants can arise from new carpet, new furniture or freshly painted surfaces by releasing what are known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 

“And as we come into winter, the burning of gas from heaters and stoves can create various nitrogen oxides,” he says. 

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. 

“But if you look to history,” he says, “before air conditioning, even in the hot Middle East they were using wind catchers and water as cooling agents.”

“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 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, he says.  

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, he says. 

We need to find a middle ground between high-rise high density living and urban sprawl in our cities, as a lesson from this pandemic, he says.

Urban sprawl can lead to greater greenhouse gas emissions due to more people commuting to work, he says, as well as destroying viable agriculture land on the outskirts of cities such as Sydney and Melbourne.

He suggests Australia should look more into the traditional terrace housing, townhouses and walk-up apartment buildings as alternatives, often referred to as the ’missing middle’.

“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” he says.

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