The rapid spread of Covid-19 is reshaping our world hour by hour.

At the time of writing, the Prime Minister, state premiers and territory chief ministers have ordered a lock down of our communities.

Many of us are working from home and are not able to leave our houses unless absolutely necessary. Nobody knows for how long these changes will be in effect.

To manage threats of various kinds, an entity, in this case the entire community, needs to exhibit social resilience.

To crudely rephrase the work of many academics in this space: in order to be socially resilient a community must have the capacity to cope, the capacity to adapt and the capacity to transform.[1]

As we work through this crisis it is difficult to determine quite where we lie between coping and adapting.

The economy is headed for recession and Centrelink queues are heartbreakingly long. We still have citizens aboard cruise ships floating off the coast of foreign countries and unable to return home. Perhaps we are still learning to cope.

But we are seeing the beginnings of adaptation – local restaurants are keeping staff on by re-badging as takeaway venues, registration systems are being established to allow essential travel over now-closed state and territory borders and many of us are learning the art of the Zoom Meeting to keep our work ticking over from home.

The community is certainly yet to be tested on our capacity to transform in the aftermath of Covid-19. But it is this crucial final element of social resilience to which planners must turn their minds. This is where the value of planning matters. Because it is planning that has the ability to shape the physical and social dimensions of our neighbourhoods,  cities and states.

You may have heard Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk tell Queenslanders to “stay in your suburb”. But to do so raises a host of questions.

Does a brief walk to my local shops give me access to all the necessities? Do I have the phone number of the older woman up the street to check she is coping? Is my internet connection good enough to allow my family to access online work and school all at the same time?

The answer to these questions lies in the capacity of planning professionals to deliver quality communities.

The preservation and diversity of your local shops would have involved the input of land use planners driving a thriving economy. The sense of connection with your neighbour might have involved a social planner or an urban designer creating safe and inviting places for you to casually cross paths. Your ability to connect remotely to home or school involved infrastructure planners ensuring telecommunication facilities were built and maintained.

So if people find they can’t easily stay in their suburb – if Covid-19 teaches us that people are not connected with their neighbours, don’t have easy access to local shops or their online connectivity is poor – it is up to planners to ensure we develop the capacity to transform our urban and regional communities.

We must look at our retail policy. A socially resilient community cannot rely on a service station to sell essentials. It requires access to a hierarchy of retail supported by the diversity of housing that makes a local centre thrive.

We must look at our open space provision. A socially resilient community cannot rely on footpaths by busy roads or overcrowded pocket parks to walk the dog or go for a run. It requires open space that has been planned, funded and maintained to cater to a growing community.

We must look at our telecommunications planning. A socially resilient community cannot have pockets of disadvantage where households don’t have reliable internet access to work or learn. It requires the coordination of government to ensure all members of our community can access the digital services they need.

We must meet the challenge of ensuring every suburb, town, regional community and city is socially resilient.

Of course, these are just examples of the lessons Covid-19 might teach us about our suburbs and regions. In fact, it is likely that the lessons of this pandemic will not be known for months or years. But the role of planners is to understand whatever lessons emerge and integrate these into our practice.

Governments, industry and organisations, like the Planning Institute of Australia, are currently involved in discussions regarding resilience of a different kind.

The tragic bushfires of this summer just gone have spurred governments to launch inquiries asking critical questions about how the resilience of our houses, property and infrastructure can be strengthened.

Once the worst of Covid-19 has passed, we should again ask ourselves how resilient we were. This time it won’t be about the resilience of our property, but about the resilience of our community – how well we looked out for one another and how quickly we could change the way we lived.

And planners will then set to work, testing our capacity to transform and using our skills to create communities that can better manage the threat next time around.

[1] M Keck and P Sakdapolrak, What is social resilience? Lessons learned and ways forward, Erdkunde, 2013, 5-19

By Audrey Marsh, Policy Officer, Planning Institute of Australia

Audrey Marsh is a social planner and policy researcher currently working in roles with local government and the Planning Institute of Australia. She has previous experience in urban planning consultancy and political advisory.