Growing numbers of high-rise buildings in increasingly dense cities will provide challenges in reducing the spread of infectious disease such as COVID-19, a leading epidemiologist says.

In a recent interview with Sourceable, Professor Mark Stevenson, an epidemiologist and Professor of Urban Transport and Public Health at Melbourne University, acknowledged that increasing urban density has benefits but added that high-rise buildings such as the public housing towers which were locked down in Melbourne present difficulties in containing the spread of the virus.

“In the absence of a vaccine – which is the case with COVID19 – the one thing that we do know that will contain the pandemic is physical distancing,” Stevenson said.

“That is a challenge. It’s a particular challenge in Victoria where we see very high densities in Melbourne and very limited entry and egress to and from the building.

“This is now contributing to the difficulty in reducing the spread of transmission of COVID-19.”

According to Stevenson, social housing towers like those in Melbourne present particular challenges as they combine a high number of people using common areas with a population cohort in which many residents have existing health challenges and are vulnerable to infectious diseases.

Going forward, Stevenson would like changes in how we design our buildings and cities.

On buildings, he stresses the need to improve physical distancing and to maximise the flow of fresh air.

On distancing, he would like measures to reduce the number of people congregating in areas such as lifts.

These measures could include multiple points of access and egress to and from each floor, multiple elevators rather than reliance upon a single lift and reprogramming elevators so they limit stops to reduce overcrowding in lifts.

On airflow, areas such as hallways could be open to external parts of the building.

Whilst he stresses that he does not have specific answers, Stevson says there may also be opportunities to improve infection control through features such as thermal elements, material selection and ventilation systems that rely on CO2 sensors to provide an indication on when fresh air is needed to be flushed through the indoor spaces.

He would like to see infection control and health and wellbeing  becoming more prominent in  building design.

Apart from buildings, Stevenson would like broader urban design changes to move away from very large towers and to improve active transport opportunities.

Whilst he acknowledges benefits associated with urban infill, Stevenson says action in these areas would help to avoid the most extreme forms of density and would facilitate greater mobility in ways which do not necessitate being close to others.

Around 3,000 residents were impacted by a hard lockdown of nine public housing towers in the inner-north suburbs of Flemington, North-Melbourne and Kensington in July amid an outbreak of COVID cases.

During this time, the residents – some of whom shared three-bedroom apartments with nine or ten people – were not allowed to leave their apartment even for exercise or food.

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