A recent YouGov poll has revealed that 52% of working age adults have been trying to work at home during the COVID lockdown and over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten a new glimpse into the lives of co-workers and colleagues as I have joined umpteen Zoom, Skype and Teams meetings.
Many, I have established, have impressive studies lined with copies of their own books; others prefer to join meetings seated in what look like salubriously appointed conservatories looking out on generously-sized gardens just budding with spring life. One or two are evidentially hunched over their laptops in kitchens with floating islands or breakfast bars.
But not everyone is so lucky. As average house sizes fall in the UK, and there is a headlong rush to fill London and our core cities with micro-apartments aimed at young professionals and students, many living under the government’s COVID-19 lockdown are trying to home-work not in well-appointed homes but in flats where living, sleeping and eating spaces are often combined.
Currently, the average size of new build flats and apartments in England – already the lowest in Europe - is declining rapidly: nationally, the average had fallen to just 65 square metres by 2014, with one retrofitted scheme in an office block in Croydon making national headlines for offering single studios of 13 square metres.
At the same time, former council estates are being renewed and redeveloped at higher density, with the public housing of the 1960s and 1970s being replaced with new apartment blocks that offer residences often much smaller in size. Our analysis of Energy Performance Certificates shows the proportion of new housing in London less than the recommended minimum of 37 square metres increased from 5% to 8% between 2015 and 2019.
Impossible to adopt good working practices
In periods of lockdown, when stir-crazy home-workers cannot access collective workspaces, public parks or local cafes, separating home and work life can become nigh on impossible, contrary to all the recommendations of those experts telling us how to adopt good working practices.
Those sharing shoe-boxed sized dwellings with others trying to home-work, or alongside children trying to complete their schoolwork, face multiple problems of interruption and noise disturbance, and have to compete with others to secure a suitable workstation. Social media accounts in the last few weeks have revealed some of London’s workers resorting to working on fire-escapes or in hallways just to escape from their roommates.
Increase in home working
Clearly, some of the flats and homes currently being built in London barely function as home spaces, let alone as spaces where home and work can be effectively combined. Yet more and more of the population is home-working all or part of the time (around 5% nationally and 230,000 of London residents).
But the desire to produce ‘affordable’ homes, and the drive toward compact ‘sustainable’ cities, is clearly encouraging the production of shrinking homes, as our research in the King’s College Urban Futures group has been investigating: currently we are using energy performance certificates to map the prevalence of small homes in the capital, relating this to HM Land Registry data to establish if these are genuinely more affordable per square foot, or simply smaller.
Potential long-term impacts of COVID
This research is important in the context of COVID-19 for a number of reasons. Firstly, with increased numbers of people isolated in the home for longer periods of time, the home matters more than ever as a haven for intimate and domestic life.
Where homes cannot or do not provide sufficient living space, the consequences for physical and mental health are potentially significant. Domestic violence is reported to have increased 25% since the onset of the UK lockdown, some no doubt due to the pressures of sharing restrictive domestic spaces. Homeworking in small homes adds to the stress of everyday life, and the impossibility of separating home and professional life can exacerbate existing work-related anxieties and depression.
But, secondly, the drive to smaller homes and compact cities matters because it is almost completely contrary to the current public heath doctrine of social distancing. COVID-19 is clearly an urban phenomena: the virus touches down in those global cities which are most obviously connected to cities elsewhere, and which boast the airports that act as the most important nodes of virus transmission.
From these nodes, it spreads through cities via crowded transit systems, public spaces and workplaces, but is also thought to have spread rapidly through dense housing developments where diverse populations are living in buildings where lifts, stairwells and service areas are shared, and where it is nigh on impossible to socially isolate effectively. Globally, COVID infection rates (per head of population) have been highest in large urban centres including New York, London and Paris, and much lower in less dense, more suburban, cities.
Future planning conundrums
This leads to some major conundrums in the future planning of cities. Dense urban living may be more environmentally-friendly, and energy efficient. But if the price to pay is people living in smaller homes that preclude flexible working and home lives, and also encourage the transmission of COVID-19, or other yet-to-be known viruses, perhaps the answer is not to continue the rush towards vertical living and micro-apartments.
Instead we need to think about how we can use urban space better to provide meaningful personal space and the opportunity to spend at least some time apart from one another.
*Note this article was updated on 4 May to remove previously inaccurate information in the 5th paragraph.