Reconnecting after coronavirus – four key ways cities can counter anxiety and loneliness

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Roger Patulny, University of Wollongong; Jordan McKenzie, University of Wollongong; Marlee Bower, University of Sydney, and Rebecca E. Olson, The University of Queensland

COVID-19 has forced us into social distancing, isolation and quarantine. These conditions are likely fostering widespread anxiety and loneliness in our cities. However, they’ve also made the need for socially connected, vibrant public spaces obvious to all.

We offer four strategies for rebuilding social connectivity and emotional wellbeing in our cities, once restrictions are lifted.

Changing the emotional climate
Enforced distancing measures are probably changing not just our work, travel and family routines, but how we interact with others and how we feel about ourselves and our communities.

Loneliness is bad for your health and is likely on the rise. There is no guarantee the pandemic-driven shift towards more digital communication will compensate for the lost emotional closeness of in-person contact.

As loneliness becomes more common, it creates a change in what sociologists refer to as “emotional climates” – the collective feelings experienced and shared by most people within a given city or society. A ‘mass emotional event’ such as COVID-19 can dramatically alter the emotional climate. It’s so disruptive that it leads to a permanent change in everyday emotional states, expressions and social interactions.

COVID-19 has strong potential to make us not only lonelier, but more distrustful, fearful, anxious and angry. The emerging evidence of this includes: panic buying of goods, abuse and stigma of ‘risky’ carers such as health workers, and potential increases in domestic violence and animal cruelty.

It has even been suggested we are collectively processing and moving through the stages of mass grief.

It’s important to remedy negative emotional climates with strategies to reconnect communities, allay fears and better prepare us for any future shutdowns. We can even aim to promote positive emotional climates and “kindness pandemics”.

Four ways to build better communities
COVID-19 is an opportunity to build on what we know and to learn from this situation. It’s possible to promote social and emotional wellbeing. We suggest four key approaches for building better communities that do this.

1. Design walkable, social, flexible public spaces
Recent work-from-home practices have reduced car traffic by up to 50 per cent on arterial roads. However, they have also prompted cabin fever and a craving for exercise and social contact.

Cities and suburbs should be redesigned to support physical and social activity and mental health. We need a greater emphasis on cycle- and pedestrian-friendly spaces. There should also be renewed focus on building walkable town centres and neighbourhood high streets, rather than continuing with car-dependent suburban sprawl.

Recent examples of innovative and flexible use of space by business are inspiring. Whether cafes become corner stores, pubs sell takeaway cocktails, parks become gyms, or car parks become pop-up businesses, flexible use of space should become commonplace.

2. Integrate public and online spaces
Our new online communication skills can help us develop a better physical-digital interface for bringing people together.

Video conferencing is flexible and can enable long-distance connection and ‘work from home’ hubs. However, social media platforms, such as Facebook, Meetup, WhatsApp or art-based apps like Somebody, are useful for organising physical meetings too. These can help with community volunteering, socialising, or simply sharing guerrilla-garden herbs for local cooking.

A better physical-digital interface could help new jobs flourish in ‘interactive’ creative industries that virtually connect isolated individuals. New art spaces could be established, putting connective digital infrastructure, such as audio-visual platforms, within physical spaces to help face-to-face and virtual audiences interact.

3. Provide quality housing
COVID-19 has exposed the vast variability in the quality of Australian housing. Many homes lack the space to accommodate work, study, relaxation, exercise and socialising, or spaces where people can seek privacy and quiet. Housing also varies in its access to fresh air, light, temperature control and healthy green spaces.

Designing future homes with these needs and features in mind should be a priority.

4. Build with different needs and stigma in mind
The effects of COVID-19 will not be felt equally. Post-COVID-19 cities should take this into account.

COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of people experiencing homelessness. It has also greatly increased the risk of loneliness for the one in four Australians who live alone. This applies particularly to older Australians with a mobility impairment.

The pandemic has also highlighted the safety risks of centralised living arrangements like nursing homes.

We must prioritise the creation of housing that reduces isolation and promotes social connection.

Recent positive public conversations on social media and within the arts community on previously stigmatised emotions like loneliness and anxiety will help keep these concerns on the public agenda.The Conversation

Roger Patulny, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Wollongong; Jordan McKenzie, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Wollongong; Marlee Bower, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use, University of Sydney, and Rebecca E. Olson, Senior Lecturer, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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Total Comments: 6
  1. 0

    While most of us are able to tolerate the sociological effects of the Covid-19 with reasonable accommodation, these authors seem to be trying to talk us into some sort of mental impairment. The suggestions for more liveable cities may have merit but I suspect that once the Covoid-19 dust settles, and I am absolutely sure it will, the status quo will very soon revert to previous patterns of behaviour: the wealthy will be reluctant to give up any of their privileges, the middle class will support the wealthy (probably because they have aspirations to become wealthy as well), and the poor will become voiceless. Maybe a pessimistic outlook but then I am unlikely to be here to see it all happen so why should I worry.

    • 0

      Agreed Eddy.
      I have not felt isolated at home, I have at times felt lonely but that also happened well before Covid-19 and it will probably be the same after the crisis is over.
      Also most of the stories on YLC seem to be about city dwellers, rural areas are more pleasant to live in and even the shopping is easier with less people around these days.

  2. 0

    The Covid-19 Virus has left me feeling like there is no tomorrow and not only that the feeling that we may be heading for a worldwide conflict. I suffer from depression as it is but there seems to me to be growing evidence that China wants to dominate the world and any efforts that the civilized Governments of the try to do to counter China will only lead to conflict. Yes Covid-19 is an immense and trying time but I fear it is only going to get worse.

    • 0

      Stevo and all.

      If you have to go places you think you might pick up some Covid-19 on your clothes, – supermarkets, creches, etc, – when you wash your clothes, on the rinse, – the LAST rinse, add Borax as per instructions on the packet, (you can buy the Borax from IGA, $5.5–;) leave the Borax in your clothes, – spin as normal, dry however, just don’t wash the borax out.

      Then the borax sits in your clothes, waiting, yearning, for some little water globule to land on your clothing and whammo, instant Covid mega death.
      Tell all your friends, then when you all go to the supermarket, Herd deathity to Covid-19

      It is all due to the Alkalinity, Viruses can’t survive high Alkalinity, borax is far more alkaline than soap, no need to scrub, just dip your hands in and done, and it stays done, for a while any door knob you touch will get to be deathsville for Covid-19 viruses lurking thereupon, and besides, your clothes will be cleaner, look cleaner and be fireproof. (fireproof applies only to natural materials, – cotton, silk, wool, etc, not plastic.) – use it on your mask too if you wear one.

      Anything to up the odds for you!


  3. 0

    Post Covid-19, whenever that will be, will make the most difference to the elderly who never before have used a mobile phone, done e-banking, owned a credit/debit card or had to order food without actually touching it beforehand and deciding whether, in the case of fruit and vegetables, it was fresh enough or ripe enough for them. Also, many of the elderly had to rely on someone else to collect their pension for them and hope they were not cheated when having shopping done for them. Learning these things about finance during COVIC-19 may have been frightening or puzzling for some elderly people and they may be looking to the future with trepidation if legal tender (bank notes) are done away with as is being encouraged.
    Now for other than elderly, my crystal ball tells me there will be more texting ($-saving), Facebook etc. so I can’t see people physically getting together in wide open public spaces for conversation. In any case, they will probably not be able to communicate verbally enough or slow enough in the Australian/English language to be able to be understood if they ‘text-speak’ to the elderly.
    I’ve already experienced difficulty in paying for something on-line by phone. I had to withdraw my pension from a straight-out savings account and deposit into a debit card account so I could use my card to quote the numbers over the phone to buy something which I could have paid cash for by driving 10 minutes to the store. What a hassle! Not looking forward to the financial side of things when we get back to ‘normal’.

  4. 0

    This is totally ridiculous article. 2 of the suggestions you can do right now and no need to wait for restrictions to be lifted and 2 are totally outside the peramteters of the individual, old or not.

    Can you please restrain your political posturing and perhaps consult with people who can offer real advice not politcal point scoring.



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