An unexpected crisis that could change our cities

By Mary-Lou ConsidineJuly 30th, 2020

COVID-19 is a health and economic crisis that’s taken the world by surprise. Yet this wicked problem may also be an opportunity for Australia to invest in new types of urban infrastructure to make cities smarter, greener, safer, and healthier.
A city scene with plants and skyscraper

The COVID-19 lockdown has changed the way we use public green spaces (Photo: Helen Beringen)

Will COVID-19 change the shape of our cities, and how we live in them?

Experts and community leaders have been calling for a rethink of everything, from urban density, public housing and greenspace, to public transport, remote working, and decentralisation.

Yet COVID-19 joins a long list of threats and challenges already facing Australia’s big cities – population growth, climate change, rising temperatures, water security, waste management, congestion, and an ageing population, to name a few.

Reshaping cities in the light of the pandemic and these pre-existing challenges may seem like a complicated task.

But, by taking a systems-based approach and a long-term perspective, researchers can help those responsible to lay the foundations of more adaptive, resilient cities – cities that will better support our response, as a nation, to pandemics and other future shocks.

Urban Living Labs

CSIRO has been working with government, business, industry and community groups to find innovative ways of integrating science with urban planning and design through its Future Cities initiative. The initiative has established two Urban Living Labs – one in Western Sydney and the other in Darwin – with a third proposed for Canberra.

CSIRO researcher Guy Barnett says the labs are places where scientists can push boundaries and trial new ways of doing things in a real-world setting.

He feels that the COVID-19 ‘pause’ presents another opportunity for urban planners to ‘reset’ and take a fresh look at what does and doesn’t work in modern cities – for example, the ageing public housing high-rises in Melbourne, where factors such as high residential densities, shared community facilities including laundries, and tight corridor and lift spaces accelerated the spread of COVID-19.

Tall building

COVD-19 is a chance to rethink the ageing public housing high-rises, like those in Melbourne. (Image: Nick Carson)

“We really live in yesterday’s cities, in that they reflect planning decisions made 50 to 100 years ago, like those public-housing high-rises built back in the 1960s.

“The thinking to date has been that compact cities are the best way to deliver the most sustainable outcomes, in terms of energy, water use, land conservation, and so on. But COVID raises the question, ‘Is high-density the right way to go’?

“The Future Cities initiative brings a systems perspective to these questions, allowing us to integrate the different dimensions and consider the long-term implications.

“So, as we recover from COVID, we can also be thinking about opportunities to transition our energy systems. Should we be thinking about a hydrogen economy, for example?

“Where do we want Australia to be in 2050? What are the stepping stones and building blocks we need to put in place to realise that vision?

“Health has always had a strong influence on the way cities are planned and designed. We seem to have lost that over the last century.

“COVID is a reminder that the way that we build our cities can shape the health outcomes of the people who live in them.”

In the face of climate change and heat waves, the Darwin Living Lab looks to create a thriving, cooler tropical capital. (Image: Louise Denton)

Greener, smarter, cleaner

CSIRO’s first Urban Living Lab – a collaboration between CSIRO and developer, Celestino – is located 60 km west of the Sydney CBD, in a greenfields development called Sydney Science Park.

Researcher Dr Simon Toze says the Penrith City Council and other local government agencies engaging with Sydney Science Park are keen for more research on urban greening in the development, to help mitigate higher temperatures in Western Sydney, which have intensified with recent hotter summers.

“We’ve measured a 5 to 8 degree difference between sensors under trees and those outside, in the sun. There’s also growing evidence that urban greening is good for our physical and mental health.

“But trees need water and nutrients. How we manage the need for water – for people, the environment, for growing trees, for everything else we need – is going to become critical.

“We can find much smarter ways of using water using AI (artificial intelligence). We could recover nutrients or other material from waste and put those back into trees and other infrastructure – a circular economy.

“Some of the waste can go to energy, not just combustion energy, but producing hydrogen.

“So you get this whole integrated approach – that’s where we’re hoping to start to take things. With COVID, we’re at that crossroads, where things like this can happen.”

Dr Toze hopes the COVID reset will include renewed interest in AI within the home, especially for managing appliance and energy use, not just for energy savings in the home, but to balance out peak loads in the grid.

“But people will need to see the social and the economic benefits first. That’s what we want the Urban Living Labs to demonstrate.”

A woman and a child in a garden

There are many benefits of community gardens, like this one in Waverley, near Bondi Junction in Sydney (Image: d-olwen-dee)

Walkable neighbourhoods

Dr Toze also hopes to see fewer cars in post-COVID cities, from better design that brings home, work and services within walking or cycling distance for everyone – the ‘20- and 30-minute neighbourhoods’.

“We could start to change the structure and function of roads so they become greener and the road surface more porous. You’d have children able to play on the streets again.

“Another thing we’re looking at is the idea of community gardens. There are so many benefits, to do with health, exercise, food security, social capital, and so on. We hope to study it from an energy–water–circular economy perspective, involving citizen science.

“We’re fortunate with Sydney Science Park because it’s just starting to develop. We’re in the process of looking at what can we put into buildings – what technologies are already commercially available and others that are still not commercially available but are close to market.

“That includes CSIRO’s printable solar cells and its GraphAir water purification system. Good quality water is a step towards producing hydrogen.

“So we can plan, from the ground up, smart water systems, smart [hydrogen-based] energy systems, virtual power plants and so on. It will all be designed as part of the infrastructure.

“COVID is showing us a different way to move forward.

“One of the interesting things we’ve seen during the shutdown is how quickly the air quality has improved in a lot of cities around the world. There are cities in India where locals can see the Himalayas again after 40-50 years.

“To me this is proof that change is possible – if we put the effort in, we will see the improvements. We just need the commercial and the political will, and to a certain extent, the community will, to make that happen.

“Researchers can help, but it really needs the will of the community, industry and decision makers to drive it. If we all just fall back into business as usual, it will be a moment lost.”


  1. I think this is a wonderful initiative. Having visited Singapore many times, one is always impressed in how much greenery there is. Although ‘food’ was mentioned once, some vertical farming with local produce would be a great addition – something like a living farmers market on site

  2. Please include disabled people in your urban planning. Walkable neighbourhoods will not work for everyone. An aim to make everything fully accessible should also be considered for all cities.

    1. Hi Jane,
      Thanks very much for your message. I asked Dr Simon Toze to respond:

      We’re sorry that the length restrictions of the article didn’t allow us to include all urban focused research we are working on. One area that didn’t get in was our research looking to develop healthier, safer smart homes to help the elderly, ill and disabled live longer and more self-sufficiently in their own homes with support provided by new technologies in the home, or reporting quickly back to support agencies if needed. We are also working with partners on automated transport and intelligent transport, booking and monitoring,(think automated vehicles booked by a system knowing when a person needs to shop, go to the doctor, or just get out and recreate). While this has broad opportunities for the community, it will hopefully provide a major benefit to assist the elderly and disabled become more mobile and able to easily get out and move around our towns and cities. Thank you for highlighting this need and we will aim to ensure our future news articles also includes what we are trying to achieve for those who need greater support in our cities to make their lives as healthy, safe and liveable as possible.

  3. The CSIRO is pushing the Agenda 21 . This will ruin our way of life in Australia ,forcing all to move into the city, destroy all small farmers in regional areas and keep us under tight control, Handing over all the enviroment to the 1% of world . Big croparations will control all regional land. How much extra funding is the CSIRO getting to support this.??

    1. Hi Terry,
      Thanks for getting in touch. I asked Dr Simon Toze to respond to your message:
      “Thank you for your response. CSIRO is actually trying to improve our cities for those already living in urban environments. The aim is to produce cities and towns that are more resilient, sustainable and liveable than how they are progressing at present. Another aim is to make Australia the best place to live in the world, which can make use remain economically competitive as we progress to 2021 while at the same time producing environmental and social improvements. We are not actively working to drain the regions towards the cities, in fact, we are also providing information and collaboration with groups and government agencies that are investigating how we can grow the regions, which hopefully will encourage people to move to the regions away from the major cities, both by providing secure employment opportunities in the regions and a healthy lifestyle. Our research is showing that our major cities are growing uncontrollably at present, and one of the best ways to counter this is to provide the means for the regions to provide a viable alternative for people to live. This will require more research on fast transport, better internet connections, and improved access to essential services such as medical support, all areas of research CSIRO is active in.”

  4. Great way to make cities more livable. Nice story

  5. Be great to see something like this happen- especially the greenery around those high rise flats!

  6. Nice to hear that this sort of work is being done. I love the forward-facing perspective and systems oriented thinking. It’s advancements like these that make the next 50 years very exciting indeed. Great article!

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