Words matter. Regular readers of this column would have seen arguments for right-wing red necks to be called crimsons, and for spatial not social distancing. So, here’s another word distinction to contemplate: instead of discussing COVID-19, the virus, let’s discuss the complexity of political and physical reactions to that virus, or COVIP, for the Coronavirus pandemic (some cynics may say the Coronavirus panic).

Three things stand out in COVIP in Australia right now: the staggering cost, how long will it last, and what does the future look like, after it’s passed. The key to answering the last part is in an understanding of a possible future for our cities, a discussion of design and architecture. Before we get there let’s look at the first two parts.

What’s the cost of becoming socialists?

In response to the COVIP the federal government is spending so much that ‘we are all socialists now’. But are we are adding unreasonably to Government debt? No. Not at all.

When we track Government debt over the last 15 years a pattern of growth appears. When Labor came to power in 2006 Australia's government debt was $60bn; by 2013, after the GFC, the debt had grown to $257bn in 2013, and Tony Abbott’s three words slogan ‘debt and deficit’ was largely responsible for Labor’s defeat. 

But in the next six years under the LNP, supposedly better financial managers, the debt grew even bigger, and faster, reaching $573bn in early 2020. The LNP had added $316bn, but only banged on about the deficit being ‘back in black’. Not the debt being doubled.

So, even if the costs of the COVIP are more than $300bn it will only equal the EXTRA debt of the last six years; and the total Government debt will be about 33 percent of GDP, lower than most OECD countries including the UK and USA, where Trump has pushed debt to over 110 percent of GDP.

With all this spending we could discover the value of a well-developed public sector and find ourselves more ‘socialist-inclined’, with the desire to fund a better society and, inter alia, fund better cities. And we will be looking for ways to pay for it, and the construction sector could be a prime target.

In a rebounded (or snap-backed) economy we could claw that money back if we increased our taxation rates (from its current level of around 26 percent to the OECD level of about 35 percent). So, the LNP government will have to abandon its ideology for low taxation, jettison its so-called tax relief, and find ways to raise more taxes. The election in early 2021 could be very topsy-turvey.

Nevertheless, this ratio of debt to GDP has not been seen since the World War 2.

How long will this war go on?

The COVIP is increasingly described as a war: both Morrison and Trump are casting themselves as ‘wartime leaders’. In that case we should look to Australia's recovery after past wars for some guidance for the future. Whilst we're at the beginning of what could be a long drawn out war, we should make a plan for what happens at the end.

Australian identity has been forged in war, or rather immediately thereafter. The ANZAC myth starting in the first world war was entrenched in every city and town with a War Memorial; Canberra’s great design is at the opposite end of the Griffin’s land axis to our Parliament House.

Modern Australia was made after the second world war; rapid expansion of the country was driven by two intertwined themes: expand the economy to pay for the war effort and accommodate refugees who will form the backbone of that economic expansion.

Think Nino Culotta’s book and film ‘They're a Weird Mob’ charting a ‘new’ Australian’s introduction to our ‘wave life’ as a labourer on a building site. The book was actually written by Irishman John O’Grady, in the guise of the Italian main character - an earlier acceptable form of the later Helen Darville / Demidenko / Dale imbroglio.

In the 25 years after the post war effort got underway, between 1950 and 1975, the population of both Sydney and Melbourne doubled. It would be almost another 50 years before the population would double again. Australia’s five major cities grew to carry 65 percent of the population in sprawling suburbia nirvanas, leading Gough Whitlam, towards the end of that growth, to describe us as a ‘suburban nation’.

Regardless of whether this is good or bad city making, it established the backbone of modern Australia cities that we live with now: rolling suburbia populated by detached houses pioneered by AV Jennings, featuring shopping malls, government schools in ‘nappy valleys’, hospitals and freeway infrastructure.

The same ‘leap forward’ in construction of our cities that we have seen post world war one and two could also occur post the COVIP ‘war’. At 12 percent of GDP, construction is the single largest sector in the Australian economy, more than mining or agriculture, and both buildings and infrastructure will undoubtedly expand as one of the key sustainers in a post-COVIP Australia.

We continue to build during COVIP, unlike in NZ where construction sites and hardware stores are closed. This is partly because spatial distancing is easily accommodated on building sites and partly because the necessity to build, for both social and economic reasons, outweighs the concerns for health. And we are way behind in the provision of infrastructure and housing in particular.

What’s the future for our cities post COVIP?

Now is a perfect time for us to reconsider the nature of our cities, to plan for what our cities will look like after the COVIP. Especially with a heightened awareness of the two factors outlined above: a greater awareness of the role of social expenditure in cities and the prominence of construction in the economy.

We need a ‘post war reconstruction commission’, just like the ones established during previous wars. A committee of experts, drawn from the professions, politics and practicalities. One that is inclusive, unlike 'Scotty from Marketing’s' mean-spirited exclusion of Albo from the National cabinet (although understandable as Labor has been two steps ahead of the LNP’s initiatives).

A sub-committee of the National Covid-19 Co-ordination Commission could be a good starting point (but with a senior public servant rather than an ex-mining executive to direct it). A plan to make better plans.

If the COVIP means that governments realize that publicly needed infrastructure, such as hospitals, requires you to take control over the 650+ private hospitals, then a realisation of the failure of privatisation is finally at hand. Post COVIP our cities will look for more public ownership, reversing years of public infrastructure sell offs.

We could use the COVIP as a time to reconsider all of our institutions. The difficulty in maintaining health in schools is an indictment on their design. Perhaps we need to reconsider how our schools are designed, how many of them they are and how they are distributed within our community so that we can keep our children healthy. Not just when a Coronavirus strikes but at all times post the COVIP.

What will the new city look like for retail? Well, perhaps the big brands will give way to smaller local community shops within walking distance. Could we return to the post WW2 idea of a milk bar and a general goods store on every second street?

Given the difficulties of proxemics, perhaps more of the population will take greater interest in the design of their childcare centres and primary and secondary schools, and the way in which they can be oriented around the health of the occupants, both the children and the teachers and childcare workers.

Three things stand out in COVIP in Australia right now: the staggering cost, how long will it last, and what does the future look like, after it’s passed. The key to answering the last part is in an understanding of a possible future for our cities, a discussion of design and architecture. Before we get there let’s look at the first two parts.

Caption: Housing needs identified in Homes in the Sun, Walter Bunning, 1945.

For housing, one precedent worth examining is the seminal book ‘Homes in the Sun’ written by Walter Bunning during WW2, the result of a commission to examine what housing, and its consequent urban and suburban developments, might look like post war. A key image from this book shows the variety of people to be accommodated, their diversity of needs and therefore the diversity of housing.

COVIP is teaching us that we need homes not houses as we isolate: home being a word denoting something inhabited, as opposed to the word house, denoting property for material exchange and gain. Maybe the new-found socialism will extend to an awareness of the need for the government to provide at least 20 percent of housing for the poorest quintile (and not leave it to philanthropy and subsidised private investment).  

COVIP exposes the degree to which housing investment has created inequality, shown by venal landlords, and their real estate pimps, ignoring the government exhortation to be compassionate to renters, issuing threats to evict now, or at the end of the COVIP. Socially progressive is not a word you'd normally associate with property investors.

We will inevitably move from a property-owning gerontocracy to a hybrid model: 50 percent of the population renting and 50 percent owning, and we can't continue the inequality of some people owning 10 homes, rented out to people have no hope of ever owning one.

We could look to similar work to ‘Homes in the Sun’ to create cities where people are housed equitably and comfortably.

It is a time for making improvements and innovations. This should be the main focus of a post-COVIP commission.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be posted here or addressed to [email protected].