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Written By

Stephanie Schierhuber


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

1 June 2020

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Planning for a healthier future

In the recent past, the attention of town planners has been on urban design that helps counteract the causes of chronic diseases. But the origins of town planning demonstrate that it has an important role to play in the management of infectious disease, too. JCU Associate Professor Lisa Law discusses how planning and urban design could change our cities in the aftermath of COVID-19.

“It was with improving people’s health in mind, that planning originated,” Lisa says. The foundational moments of town planning and urban design sprang from public health concerns and the desire to ease the spread of disease.

In quickly-growing cities like London, Paris and New York, measures were introduced to separate waste removal from drinking supplies, to zone heavy industry away from residential neighbourhoods and to provide wider boulevards and greenspace for leisure and exercise.

For the past few decades, the public health origins of planning and urban design have narrowed to centre on chronic diseases. “We’ve created these cities where people are just using cars, they’re not walking,” Lisa says. “As a result, we’ve needed to think about chronic health, heart disease, obesity and even asthma. And so, that’s what planning has been thinking about.”

Minimising risk while keeping communities together

While the focus on chronic disease has had some definite health benefits, Lisa says COVID-19 has exposed a few problems with the way we design and plan cities.

High density living, for example, is a necessary part of many city plans. As Lisa notes these towers often “don’t have balconies, and there’s one central point of the lift that increases the likelihood of contamination.”

Given how essential access to fresh air, the outdoors and visually seeing other people has become in these days of quarantine and isolation, Lisa thinks a balcony revival might be on the cards. “When you look at the videos of Italians out on their balconies, socialising with each other and singing, you realise how important they are. I think that there might be a renewed emphasis on balconies.”

It’s not just living spaces, but greenspaces that offer opportunities for infectious disease-conscious design in light of COVID-19. While fewer, larger parks is often the model for city planning, COVID-19 has made obvious the issues with having many people converge on the one space. “If you’re trying to social distance, you can’t do it…you’re better off having many smaller parks that are more evenly spread throughout the city.”

Ultimately, Lisa says, “there is a lot of work that can be done that COVID-19 has exposed.”

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Featured researcher

Associate Professor Lisa Law

Associate Professor

Lisa Law is an interdisciplinary researcher whose research focuses on creating inclusive, quality urban spaces in Southeast Asia and tropical Australia. She is interested in how we understand liveability in regional areas and how to deploy place-based strategies of urban design. Lisa is the founder of JCU’s Tropical Urbanism and Design Lab, an interdisciplinary team of geographers, architects, sociologists, and planners interested in urbanism in the tropics. Lisa has particular interests in responsive urban designs for tropical built environments, social and urban geography, and disaster resilience in the wider region.