In just three tumultuous months, the homes we live in and the ways we get to and from them have become much more significant components in what many now see as a considerably more nuanced workplace equation. Simon Wicks assesses how the built environment beyond the office doors may affect the future health and wellbeing of workers.
Making housing fit for working purpose
The technological ‘test’ has been passed, and a greater level of working from home seems an inevitable component of the future knowledge workspace. But what about the houses from which we now expect workers to perform? How can we ensure that they are fit for working purpose?
“There’s been a psychological change in the way in which we see our home,” explains cognitive neuroscientist Araceli Camargo. “It’s a literal physical shelter but it’s also become a mental shelter, a sanctuary; the only place where you can go, ‘OK, I can breathe’.” Under lockdown, says the founder of research organisation Centric Lab, the “utility” of our homes has changed. Hitherto, for many of us, our homes have been places where we would mostly eat and sleep. Now, as well as socialising in them (if only virtually), educating our children in them, managing sickness and recovery in them, and working out in them, we are, of course, working in them.
As we leave lockdown, with our homes seemingly set to play an increasingly routine role as an extended workplace, do they offer the flexibility of space and quality of utilities we need? Do they provide sufficient warmth, peace, natural light and healthy ventilation?
Camargo, whose research investigates links between the design of living environments and mental and physical health, says the answer to these questions is a definite no. Her work is in finding a distinct relationship between environmental stress and susceptibility to illness. The stresses she is looking at – noise, air and heat pollution, lack of ventilation and temperature regulation – are more common in built-up areas and in areas of socio-economic deprivation.
“How do we design the urban realm to boost our immunity but also to stop the spread of viruses in a mechanistic way?”
Research into Covid-19 hotspots appears to reinforce the point: Office for National Statistics data released in late April revealed that people living in the most deprived 30 per cent of areas in England and Wales were more than twice as likely to die from Covid-19 than people living in the richest 10 per cent of areas. People in cities are more than six times as likely to die than people in rural areas.
Experts reporting through the Science Media Centre have offered potential explanations for the raw data, ranging from greater population density to residents of deprived areas being more likely to be key workers. But the scientists considered other areas, too. People in poverty are less able to shop online (internet and delivery costs) so more likely to keep shopping in person. There is also a correlation between living in these areas and the kind of underlying health conditions that can make a case of Covid-19 more severe.
Holistic approach to housing
For Camargo, the secret to creating more healthy – and disease-resistant – living environments lies in taking a “holistic” approach to their planning and design. This would involve calling on expertise ranging from epidemiology to industrial engineering.
“You need all of these different types of brains in a room to go ‘What’s the best way to move forward?’ Industrial engineers are fascinating. You have to look at one element and the risk that it poses,” she says. “High density, for example, solves a lot of problems. It means we can get to resources faster. But it also means all the pollutants becoming higher.
“How do we densify intelligently so that it doesn’t cause these unintended human consequences? How do we design the urban realm to boost our immunity but also to stop the spread of viruses in a mechanistic way? We need systemic thinking.”
If the wider economy is to have more homeworkers in it, the houses that home them ought – at a minimum – to protect from external threats such as pollution and disease. Yet many fail in this requirement. And according to Graham Marshall – founder of Prosocial Place and NHS Healthy New Towns steering group member – the way that we design houses can also detach people from their communities.
“There’s a whole new sense of the way places impact on people and how people relate to places,” he says. Speaking of people with conditions such as anxiety and depression that already create a sense of isolation, he notes that many of those forced now to work from home “seem to be doing quite well because their lives haven’t changed that much.” They are still quite isolated from people, but may have had support strategies already in place.
Marshall worries that while some with such conditions have appeared to be “thriving” in lockdown, “there’s a group of people that didn’t know they had [underlying] problems and I think it’s going to impact on those people quite badly.”
Indeed, early evidence from the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests that this is precisely the case, particularly among young men. It even warned of the risk of services being overwhelmed by a “tsunami of mental illness”.
Tim Townshend, professor of urban design for health at Newcastle University, remarks: “You start wondering about the quality of housing that we’re building. Do they exacerbate them [these underlying problems] – a lack of privacy, noise transference from adjacent properties, just the fact that we’re crammed into the smallest housing in Europe?”
Issues relating to size, adaptability and quality of housing long predate Covid-19 but are being thrown into relief by the virus. Certainly, in spite of space standards, we do build small houses. In 2014, Cambridge University found that UK new-builds averaged just 76 square metres compared with 137sq m in Denmark. Research in 2017 by property company Sellhousefast.co.uk found that a “British” new-build three-bedroom home averaged 88sq m – smaller, they said, than the stipulated minimum of 93sq m.
Although voices calling for healthier homes and living environments have become louder, other forces that drive the way we plan our living environments may well be exacerbating the health inequalities that seem to be shown up by the statistics.
The growth of private rental, build-to-rent and co-living models, allied with a policy stress on densification that permits office-to-residential conversions without planning permission, present challenges to the size and adaptability of internal and external spaces, not to mention suitability of location.
Camargo notes that adequate ventilation for the circulation of clean air is a critical aspect of good health generally, and especially for recovery from respiratory disease. But “if a home is in an area that has high levels of air pollution and they cannot open up windows…”
Marshall says: “It’s a great opportunity to bounce forward and do all the things that urban designers, planners and architects have been pent up about all these years – creating great cities where people thrive, not just where some people can make some short-term money. Places where people are able to develop some sense of meaning in their life. So it’s not always about work, but living in neighbourhoods where you can thrive.”
Reassessing the roads: City of London
In May 2019, the City of London Corporation set out its first long-term transport strategy. A year later, it is rolling out temporary measures “to ensure the gradual safe return of those who work, live and visit the Square Mile” that have a lot in common with its longer-term ambitions.
Streets have been classified into three tiers based on the interventions required to allow social distancing. These include closure to vehicles, reallocation for walking or cycling, and closure to through traffic or one-way systems. Changes will be reviewed continually.
“This is an enormous experiment so there is an element of ‘suck it and see’,” says Bruce McVean, acting assistant director of city transportation.
“In London as a whole, the aim is to avoid a spike in car, taxi and private hire use. As people return to offices, we need them to cycle or use public transport, recognising that capacity will be limited. In London, that culture change is happening anyway, but this could accelerate it.”
Existing legislation provides emergency powers to make temporary changes – “the kind you’d use if a building was in danger of collapsing” – that can stay in place for up to 18 months. But what longer-term impact will these measures have?
“The Olympics in 2012 was the last time we had to do this kind of major travel management work, and that didn’t lead to as much permanent change as people thought it would,” says McVean. “That may have been because it was a relatively short period of time that we had to make changes for. With this pandemic, changes might need to remain in place for six months or even longer.”
McVean thinks adaptations to how businesses receive deliveries, for example, could become permanent. “Feedback from the public is key,” he says. “We’re setting up a map-based tool to give us insight into whether these are things people would like to see as permanent changes.”
Words – Matt Moody
Riding a wave of commuting change
Covid-19 is prompting councils to ‘reallocate’ road space to encourage active travel and enable pedestrians to travel safely. For now, most such measures are temporary – but will workplace managers need to adapt to new ways in which workers commute within towns and cities?
“If we want to change, this is the time to do it,” insists John Lauder, Edinburgh-based deputy chief executive of cycling and walking charity Sustrans. “It’s about setting up safe and reliable routes to where people need to get to; about sufficient safe physical distance; and about temporary infrastructure that leads to well designed permanent infrastructure.”
Then it is about access, he adds, and for the government “to keep up the message that we want people to exercise more”.
On its surface, Lauder’s recipe for a new way of managing movement in towns and cities is driven by the need to adapt to Covid-19. But it is also a manifesto for embedding the principles of sustainable transport into our towns and cities.
Campaigners, planners, researchers, policymakers and health experts have argued the case for years, but progress has been piecemeal until now.
“One thing missing from this debate is the economic cost behind all of this. It’s a balancing act”
Encouraged by the government injunction to take daily exercise during the pandemic, a plethora of walkers, joggers and cyclists have emerged onto suddenly spacious streets. Bike sales have boomed. Cycle-to-work schemes have seen a 200 per cent increase in bicycle orders from people working in emergency services.
Since a mid-April low of 22 per cent of normal levels, car use had crept back to 67 per cent by early June, according to the Department for Transport. This could be read as people seeing cars as the safer option for getting around. However, “people can’t all go back to commuting on public transport [with physical distancing reducing capacity],” says Rachel Aldred, professor of transport and director of the University of Westminster’s Active travel academy. Rail and bus use has remained depressed, with the low demand stemming from continued furlough and homeworking.
The spatial dimension
Space is the issue – cars still take up the lion’s share of our streets. Governments and cities are responding by ‘reallocating’ street space away from cars and towards people on foot and bicycles. They are also encouraging people to continue working from home, introducing physical distancing rules on public transport, promoting cycling and circumscribing delivery times for goods vehicles.
‘Pop-up’ measures from road closures to traffic cones are redesignating road space. Many of these measures could be seen as trials for what could become permanent.
Lauder describes the government response to Covid-19, in sustainable transport terms, as a “watershed moment”. But who is to say we won’t all go back to how we were before, with a few small changes in public transport use and homeworking habits? What’s required to really embed sustainable travel patterns into our everyday lives and ‘normalise’ them?
It could be that the mass deployment of such temporary measures will inform a new approach to infrastructure planning, says Lauder. “Not that traditional approach of ‘We’ll do it once a nd it’ll be fine’. We’re going to have to go back and iterate which is what a lot of Northern European countries do. ”
For Jo Ward, board member of the Transport Planning Society and transport planner with Elliott Wood, the challenge lies in the “missing middle”. Ward contends that while technology may have facilitated a revolution in remote working, there’s still no simple solution to the car for middle-distance journeys where public transport doesn’t exist as a means to get to work. While advocating for more investment in local public transport, Ward nevertheless sees behaviour change as a necessity. “It may be that peak travel is over. We may need to rethink how we run our days. Because for a lot of things we don’t need to travel anymore.”
For Aldred, the focus needs to be on facilitating shorter commutes – the kind that most people would nevertheless consider too far to walk. She looks to Brussels, where city leaders have created cycle lanes radiating from the centre into the suburbs, and Bogotá, where cycle tracks run alongside rapid bus transit routes for those reluctant to use buses.
Such ‘nudges’ can induce behaviour change and the UK Government is encouraging similar schemes. But there are obstacles, says Aldred. “The initial funding from government is not anywhere near enough. And there needs to be a clear programme that needs technical more than policy support to help local authorities do this. They haven’t done as much to change the [traffic order] regulations as they could. It needs to be easier to do temporary things that are then converted into permanent.”
Yet Aldred is hopeful. “London traditionally had very little cycling, but now people point at London saying ‘that’s London, it couldn’t happen here’. ”
Christopher Ashley, head of policy at the Road Haulage Association, fears that some of the temporary reallocation of road space, to the detriment of road hauliers, may become permanent. “The roads have been empty and air pollution figures have come down,” he says. “But it’s not come cost-free. One thing missing from this debate is the economic cost behind all of this. It’s a balancing act. It’s not the environment or the economy, it’s the environment and the economy.”
E-Cargo bikes: Riding the changing tide
Electric cargo (e-cargo) bikes may be able to play a useful role in last-mile deliveries for towns and cities keen to reduce and promote active travel in commercial centres. Smaller and cheaper to buy and maintain than vans, these use cycling infrastructure and carry 150-200kg of payload (including rider), plus 150kg in a trailer. Beyond couriering, they may also be more efficient than vans in a city centre, providing new ways for how facilities services are provided and supported on site.
“My company, Last Mile Manchester, has a contract with DHL Express parcels,” says Richard Armitage of the European Cycle Logistics Federation. “We deliver 10-12 parcels per hour in the centre of Manchester, whilst a DHL van with the same parcels and the same customers would manage just six to eight.”
Can this commercial proposition support the broader argument in favour of reallocating road space towards pedestrians and cyclists? It may be that climate change goals play a part. Armitage notes that to meet the New Green Deal promoted by EU president Ursula von der Leyen, one in two light commercial vehicles will need to be replaced by cargo bikes, e-cargo bikes, trailers and e-trailers by the year 2030.
UPS already has 120,000 ‘alternative’ vehicles on the roads worldwide, including e-cargo bikes.
The campaign group Just Ride The Bike has noted how firms such as Sainsbury’s are trialling e-cargo bikes, and points out that logistics hubs will be smaller than those for other road vehicles with multistorey car parks potentially repurposed to store bikes and freight. Then there’s the potential for facilities services – cleaning, catering, maintenance – to be supported through these more mobile support vehicles.
Nevertheless, obstacles are obvious; van drivers are typically reluctant or physically incapable of embracing such a mode switch. And there will always be a need to make much larger deliveries.
The RHA’s Christopher Ashley has concerns. “E-cargo bikes have their place, but it’s all about balance. With the best will in the world, you can’t take a one-tonne girder on an e-cargo bike.”
To which Armitage counters: “We are not for a second saying that we should be delivering 40 tonnes of sand to a construction site. Which is why where we think it’s headed to about 50 per cent of the light commercial van fleet.”
More details about Armitage's City Changer Cargo Bike project and how it seeks to meet its aims can be found at www.cyclelogistics.eu
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