Resilience and the City

How Britain’s homes failed the pandemic stress test

What did the Covid-19 lockdown tell us about the state of housing in the UK? The answer is troubling, according to new research from Place Alliance.

In January 2020, Place Alliance published the first ever country-wide Housing Design Audit: a profound examination of the state of English volume housebuilding. This thorough-going audit concluded that the quality of new housing in the United Kingdom is generally mediocre or poor. Several weeks later the first lockdown (in response to Covid-19) was announced, sending people into their homes for extended periods. The following question immediately came to us: what was the experience of people when they were forced to spend so much time at home?

To answer this, we created a nation-wide survey created with the intention of discovering how the design of homes and neighbourhoods affected our collective experience of lockdown. The survey was eventually completed by 2,500 households. The results were fascinating and a further indictment of the quality of homes built in the UK. Overall, one sixth of those who responded said that they were either uncomfortable or very uncomfortable during lockdown. As these respondents came from all segments of society and from across the UK, this means that if the figures were extrapolated it would represent almost 11 million people across the UK were uncomfortable during lockdown. An astonishing figure.

10% very uncomfortable, 6% uncomfortable, 15% Ok, 33% comfortable, 33% very comfortable

Given the findings of the Housing Design Audit it was unsurprising – although profoundly worrying – that people living in housing built in the last 10 years were the most likely to report feelings of discomfort with their home environment, as well as a weaker sense of community. By contrast, those that lived in developments built before 1919 were more likely than those that lived in the most recently built homes to be comfortable and to feel a strong sense of community. People in the oldest developments (pre-1919) were also twice as likely as those in the newest to say that their neighbourhood met their everyday needs. Indeed, the data showed a progressive deterioration of the neighbourhood experience of lockdown from old to new: older neighbourhoods scored better than more recent ones.

2% very poorly, 5% poorly, 33% okay, 32% well, 28% very well

There is much in the Home Comforts report to make future planners and policy makers reconsider current approaches, in a positive and negative way. The report concluded that two thirds of people felt comfortable or very comfortable during lockdown, with access to private open space in the form of a garden or terrace being the key factor contributing to this comfort. Proximity to a park or green space was the most important factor in terms of satisfaction with neighbourhoods, closely followed by access to local shops.

Urban density may be positive in some ways, but our report suggests density has its drawbacks. Unfortunately, respondents were more likely to say they were uncomfortable in their homes if they lived in flats; if they were socially renting or if they lived in high-rise blocks. Of those living in blocks of five storeys or higher or among social renters, around a third felt profoundly uncomfortable during lockdown. This compared with around half that number for those living in terraced housing and amongst owner occupiers.

22% outdoor space, 12% space available, 10% daylight/ventilation/doors/orientation, 7% separate office space, 6% not open plan/variety of spaces, 4% open plan/large dining/kitchen space, 3% views, 2% house type, 1% apiece for sound insulation, high ceilings, number of bathrooms, space to exercise, 1% house condition, separate entrance and access/connection to outdoor space/street.

Proximity proved to be very important. Around three quarters of people living within a five-minute walk of a park or local facilities such as shops felt that their neighbourhood met their everyday needs well. Yet if parks or local facilities were more than a 10-minute walk away, satisfaction with the neighbourhood fell sharply to only around a half of respondents. There has been much talk of 15- or 20-minute city principles during the pandemic, advocating that people should be able to meet most of their needs within a short walk or cycle. The study, however, suggested that even 15 minutes is too far for many of us, and that in urban areas we ought to be aiming for a ten- or even five-minute city.

13% outdoor space/more outdoor space, 9% no change, 8% more space, 7% more space for office, 6% better sound insulation, 6% larger living room/kitchen/diner, 5% storage space, 4% more/better bathrooms, 4% more light, 4% better heat insulation/energy efficiency, 4% house alterations, 3% better facilities, 2% better access to outdoor space, 2% better separation between rooms, 2% house type, 1% better ventilation, 1% better orientation, 1% better working arrangements, 1% outdoor space location/orientation, 1% view

The pandemic has put us under huge strain, yet it has also revealed new opportunities and reminded us of some fundamental things we value: nature, family, freedom to walk, and community. As we look likely to continue to spend more time at home in the future – using new technologies to free us up from the daily commute – we need to build our homes and neighbourhoods as decent places where people wish to spend time in, and in which they can build better lives. Yet as A Housing Design Audit for England suggested and Home Comforts confirmed, in recent years we have let design standards drop.

Homes should have access to private open space. They should be big enough to comfortably live in; be well lit and have good insulation from noise. Neighbourhoods need basic amenities, including open space and local shops and residents should be able to comfortably walk or cycle to them. We should learn from the stress test that lockdown has given our homes and neighbourhoods and consider how we might adapt those we are already living in. Good design is needed to incorporate and reconcile these demands.

These are complex multi-faceted research and practice agendas, which The Bartlett is fully committed to addressing. For its part, the Place Alliance has moved on to explore and examine the skills and capacities which would unlock better housing design in the future.


Prof Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning and Urban Design, The Bartlett School of Planning

Valentina Giordano

Lecturer (Teaching), The Bartlett School of Planning, and Manager of Place Alliance

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