A Perth urban planner says that the public works that will be delivered through this once-in-a-generation infrastructure spend to stimulate the economy should move us towards more resilient and sustainable communities – and he reveals how a focus on people-first mobility will help. 

The way we live in and use our cities has changed since the COVID-19 crisis, with the lockdowns expected to have a lasting impact on working arrangements, modes of travel, lifestyle choices, spending patterns and recreation activities.

Adrian Cagnana is a Perth Senior Urban and Place Planner at RobertsDay, an urban design consultancy.

He says: “It is clear the lockdown is having a huge impact on our short-term behaviour and shining a light on the importance of our local neighbourhood and how they could be improved. My local coffee shop has tripled its orders since the lockdown began."

The park across the road is busier than it has ever been, showing again how important our public spaces are in times of crisis. Footpaths are also full of activity in the mornings and afternoons, as people are finding an extra hour in their day without the city commute.

They’re using this time to go for a bike ride with the family, escape the office for some fresh air and ditch the gym membership for the pavement. There have also been reports of a ‘lemonade stand’ comeback, as local artists and entrepreneurs – some of the hardest hit by the economic fall-out of COVID-19 – find new ways to sell their products to a local market.”

Cagnana believes it is likely these new trends will influence the way we plan and build our cities in the longer term.

“If history is anything to go by, we know that pandemics and disease are major city-shaping events. We only need to look to Haussmann’s Paris Boulevards, Howard’s Garden City or Le Corbusier’s Modernism. Public health issues leave a lasting mark on our cities and create a perfect storm to accelerate change. With some restrictions across the globe likely to remain in place for a long time, COVID-19 is looking every bit like the city-disruptor pandemics of the past.”

“The debate around its long-term impacts on the planning of our cities is just starting to heat up,” he says.

As lockdown restrictions begin to ease in Australia, Governments at all levels will turn their attention to stimulating the economy through fast-tracking public works. He says where this money is spent will have a major impact on the lifestyle decisions of the public, and developers will follow this lead, reinvesting and repositioning their assets for the future. He thinks the first steps to answering some of these questions will lie in the urban planning profession, ensuring projects delivered will move towards designing more resilient and sustainable communities.

“As a practice, we are reimagining the way our cities might respond to the impacts of the pandemic and the spatial opportunities that will be of most interest.”

“The introduction of 1.5m social distancing measures has shone a light on the amount of public space we give over to the car. With the number of vehicles on our roads down more than 30 percent across all Australian cities as a result of our changing work routines during the lockdown, more people are returning to the street to walk and cycle in their local neighbourhoods. We believe it is the perfect time to transition to complete streets,” he says.

This would see the widening of footpaths to place greater emphasis on walking, the introduction of Copenhagen-style cycling paths as the preferred modes of transport, encouraging micro mobility such as electric scooters and bikes, lower speed for cars, more trees and greenery in the street, and pavement transformed to plazas. Mobility in the 21st century must have a people-first approach.