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High-rise apartments – a covid concern in the central city

by Inner City Wellington
The recent outbreak of community transmission of Covid-19 in Melbourne has highlighted the cruise ship type risks of dealing with a pandemic in high-rise apartments. The cramped space in common areas – entrance ways and corridors, lifts and stairways in particular – make physical distancing difficult. We do not want a situation like that in Melbourne to develop here.

In the words of the Victoria Premier:

“This represents a challenge we’ve not yet encountered. This is not like an outbreak spread across multiple homes or multiple suburbs. The close confines and the shared community spaces within these large apartment blocks means this virus can spread like wildfire.”

If we have to revert to higher levels of response to this or other pandemics in future, the central city in Wellington has particular vulnerabilities in this regard because of population densities that have been allowed to develop.

According to 2018 census figures, taking specific mesh blocks within our area, of particular concern are Wellington Central at 53.4 persons per hectare; Vivian East at 83.91; Vivian West at 94.29, and especially Dixon St at 138.14. Since the census, further apartment buildings have been opened or are being built in these areas, which will increase these population densities.

Inner City Wellington believes the Wellington City Council should consider imposing specific limits on population density per hectare at early planning stages in future. Any apartment proposal put forward for Consent should have to demonstrate that it will not increase the population density per hectare in a mesh block beyond a specified limit.

We are not anti-development and we understand the need for greater density to cope with future growth in the city, but we believe this must occur in a manner that takes the health of current and future residents into consideration.

A related issue is thinking through the type of residents any high rise will accommodate. For example, mixed housing may be more effective in developing communities that can better deal with pandemic type limitations. It is time now to ensure issues such as these are addressed in the revision of the District Plan.

ICW also questions whether the Government and Local Bodies are giving sufficient consideration now to providing guidelines and developing appropriate monitoring of the issues this pandemic raises for existing high-rise apartment residents.

In checking around our area during Lockdown, we found the following:

. There were no guidelines for apartments about the need for very specific ‘rules’ to meet physical distancing and hygiene requirements within their building.
. Until it was brought to their attention by one proactive apartment block, the City Council seemed to have no awareness of the problem.
. Had we had community transmission, from our information only 2 or 3 apartment blocks had implemented appropriate physical distancing practice.
. Some reported that it was very difficult to get residents to ‘obey the rules’ anyway.
. Common areas not being adequately cleaned was another issue.

ICW strongly advocates for the immediate development and communication of guidelines which need to address at least the issues of cleaning, access (security systems, no shared rides in lifts, availability of hand sanitiser in lifts and public areas etc), cordoning off all common spaces not needed for access, security (systems in some blocks create access problems for deliveries, forbidding use of gyms, pools, etc, communication and support, register of visitors, emergency contacts etc.

We believe it is time now to ensure that such guidelines are adopted nationally and that a specific programme of education for apartment buildings is immediately developed and implemented. At the very least, Body Corporates should be informed of their responsibilities and what support is available to them.

National and Local Body Resilience Strategies should also have the particular issues relating to ‘vertical streets’ covered in their plans. Pandemics need to be part of our future disaster plans just as much as earthquakes. And we need to be limiting, not increasing the density of populations in those areas already well beyond healthy levels.

Inner City Wellington [1] seeks to serve as a progressive and influential voice for the residential community in Te Aro and Wellington Central.