ANDREW GILES MP
Around the world big global cities are now looking very different - with empty streets, deserted football stadiums and fenced-off play equipment. COVID-19 has radically changed our urban environment.
Movement in Melbourne and Sydney has fallen to 15% and 13% of normal levels as people isolate at home.
The pandemic is radically confining our everyday lives, and changing our how cities work.
It’s a cruel blow that this virus appears to benefit from what many of us love most about cities – density and the connectivity that brings.
Cities are all about connections, but now so many of these have been cut. I’ve been concerned for some time that we face a crisis in loneliness.
One in two Australians have reported feeling lonely at least one day a week, according to the Australian Loneliness Report.
This was, of course, before social distancing and the breaking of so many social bonds - such as those formed within workplaces, sporting teams, at pubs and places of worship. This week’s Essential poll informs us that one in eight Australians feel that they are struggling with self-isolation and fear for their mental health.
We know that loneliness hurts us, and can even kill.
Right now, Australians are all alone, together.
I’m hopeful that this shared experience of suspended social connection will help remove the stigma that has prevented people raising their personal experiences of loneliness and held back our policy responses.
To manage a collective response to the crisis we face today, we need to think about tomorrow and how we’d like our cities to look in the future. We need to rethink the relationship between the economy in which we work, and the society in which we live.
We need to imagine how we can secure good lives now, in the absence of physical connection, and how we can rebuild our cities as places where connection is stronger and relationships more resilient.
This means thinking differently about infrastructure – not just roads, rail, ports, airports, 5G or broadband. Although reliable high speed broadband matters now, more than ever, for those able to work or learn from home, or just relax by watching Netflix. It means thinking about planning urban environment for all kinds of human connections.
We need to consider the invisible webs that make up communities – the connections create a sense of identity through place that matters so much to most people. As we spend our days inside our homes, we can’t become isolated from the neighbourhoods they help make up.
It’s time to treat loneliness with the attention it deserves. To ensure people can manage this period of change in our lives - and to do all we can to emerge stronger on the other side.
This pandemic is amplifying existing inequalities - the experience is common to us all, but means different things to different people. Those with the loudest voices sometimes seem like the only ones being heard.
It’s those near the top of the earnings scale who find it easiest to work from home. It’s very different for those isolating in a large house with superfast broadband to others in share houses or indeed those who are homeless.
And let’s not just think about nuclear families, as more and more Australians are living in single-person households. For many, this is a choice that lately feels very different and much lonelier.
Facing the fact that the COVID-19 crisis takes us as it finds us is vital to overcoming its threat.
This crisis can serve as an opportunity, to reinforce our social networks and build new ones – to make our cities more equal and more resilient.
We have an imperative to reach out now, as neighbours to those feeling isolated, but this must continue to drive policy change, to strengthen connections, within and between neighbourhoods. To make sure our infrastructure meets the needs of all citizens. From secure housing for all to bridging digital divisions, opening up recreational spaces and also opportunities for democratic participation, for everyone to have a say in shaping the place in which they live.
How our cities function has shaped the spread of COVID-19, and informed public health responses to this. All of this is reshaping how we are living our lives now, highlighting both the important connections that many had taken for granted, and also that too many others had been feeling disconnected.
Being together, alone, must be a call to action to fight loneliness, and to put people back to the centre of our thinking about cities.