Rebooting the housing crisis

By Tony Clements | 11 November 2020

When the COVID crisis finally subsides, we’ll have some big housing questions to answer. Like the last major economic crisis of 2007-08, we’ll need to reboot housing delivery and find ways to keep on building the homes we need. However, the questions stemming from this public health and economic crisis are more profound than the credit crunch. It’s not just how do we get building again, but what do we build to meet the needs of a post-COVID society?

The experience of COVID and lockdown has changed many people’s relationship with their home and neighbourhood. As our travel and geography has been restricted, we’ve had to meet our needs from where we live. We have a sharper sense of what, in our neighbourhoods, supported our health and wellbeing and what did not. This is experience we can learn from to put health and wellbeing at the heart of new homes and new developments.

There are lots of ways that our homes and neighbourhoods can be good and bad for our health, but there are two which have really come to the fore as a result of lockdown.

Firstly, access to nature and green space has made a huge difference to many people this year. This is unsurprising. Who wants to be stuck indoors during spring and summer? It also chimes with extensive evidence on the positive impact of green space on our health and wellbeing.

In one often cited study, researchers studied the experience of the residents of a social housing complex in Chicago. One block faced onto a concrete courtyard. The neighbouring block faced onto one with grass and trees. In the former, researchers found people were more fatigued, with higher levels of stress and reported feeling angry more often. In another study, even the view of greenery out of a window as opposed to a city view, helped hospital patients recover more quickly from surgery.

How we incorporate open space and access to nature in new developments will surely now have a greater focus. It’s not just a ‘nice to have’; its absence is bad for us. This is of course easier to achieve outside of our towns and cities. The challenge to which councils, planners, developers and architects need to rise is how we weave access to nature and green space into our urban environments. We’ll need more creativity and may need to give up some more land to do it.

Secondly, for many people neighbourly and community relationships have been essential this year. The willingness of people to help each other out has been one of the few bright spots in recent months. This has been through formal volunteering as well as happening spontaneously as people got in touch with their neighbours and offered support. It’s been a lifeline for the more vulnerable in our community, but it is good for us all. We now convincingly know that the most important thing underpinning good health is good relationships. We know that loneliness is worse for your health than smoking or drinking. And it’s not just close relationships that matter – of equal importance are the informal friendships and contacts of everyday life.

There are lots of things that contribute to a place where people know each other. How our homes and neighbourhoods are built is one critical factor. We need to build in the ‘bumping into’ places where it’s comfortable and safe to stop and talk. We need development that is dense enough to see and know our neighbours, but not so close that we feel our space is intruded upon and we put up barriers. In some parts of the country we’ve seen decisive moves towards lower traffic neighbourhoods, where roads are evolving into public spaces. Some of the best development and regeneration involves tenants, residents and the community at every stage, resulting in places that people feel they have shaped and created together.

We also need to hold fast to the importance of mixed communities and mixed tenure housing. People of different ages, incomes, backgrounds and ethnicities need different things and have different things to offer each other. It’s that interrelationship that makes resilient communities and has been at the heart of those communities that have coped best with COVID and lockdown.

We’ll still have a housing crisis after COVID. There will be a social and economic need to get building again and much debate and policy will focus on this. But let’s also use the experience of lockdown and COVID to put new energy into homes that enhance our health and wellbeing. A generation of new homes where it is easier to know your neighbours and some contact with the natural world lifts your mood would be a rich housing legacy from this crisis.

Tony Clements is strategic director for economy at Hammersmith and Fulham LBC. He writes in a personal capacity

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