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Urban Living • 10 minute read

How we live and its impact on our mental health may shape development trends in future

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A recent survey conducted by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) to gauge the pandemic's impact on the mental wellbeing of South Africans has revealed that 40% of respondents cited 'depression' as a key challenge that they had personally experienced during the country’s lockdown period.


Research shows that there is a strong correlation between low levels of social interaction with the proliferation of conditions such as depression. When conducting its survey, SADAG's Dr Frans Korb found that isolation was a recurring theme among callers to SADAG's helplines during the lockdown period. "For many people, this is a worrying amount of alone time when they are forced to face themselves, their fears and anxieties" he says.


Given the amount of time that these callers spent at home over the last few months, it begs the question: Does our physical space also play a role in our mental health?


A recent webinar hosted by the University of Cape Town's (UCT) Urban Real Estate Research Unit (URERU) in collaboration with the UCT Conference Centre, sought to understand how the property market would evolve post-Covid-19. Professor Francois Viruly, Head of URERU, predicted that while the spaces in which we will live would become smaller (20m2 or less in size), our environment would play a far more prominent role in relation to mental health.


Jacques van Embden, Managing Director at urban property developer Blok, believes that living in a place that offers access to friends, family and neighbours is an important pillar in achieving a healthy state of mind. "When people spend a significant amount of time at home, they tend to rely more heavily on their community, which circumvents a sense of loneliness or isolation."


How will this increased focus on community impact property development in future? Explains van Embden, "There will be more emphasis on communal living; shared spaces where residents can congregate safely, helping foster a sense of connection."


He also believes that being close to the ocean or nature, which has also been found to have a positive impact on mental wellbeing, will take precedence over a larger physical space.


Prof. Viruly agrees: "COVID-19 brings anything out, it will be the importance of our parks and public spaces and how we think about space."


The neighbourhood in which we live is equally as important. Ahead of launching its new development, Blok recently conducted a survey that sought to better understand the market and what potential investors were looking for when considering the purchase of property. Says van Embden, "While space (square meterage) was still flagged as highly important to those surveyed, it was interesting to see that respondents would still prefer to live in a smaller apartment located in a neighbourhood of their choice, as opposed to a larger unit within a neighbourhood that did not appeal to them."


Given the knock to consumer's wallets, affordability will increasingly drive ownership and rental decisions, which is expected to impact the size of properties well into the future. "As consumers continue to face financial pressure, we will see a rise in cost-effective micro or compact spaces with added features and other drawcards, says van Embden, "As developers shift their focus to producing an offering that will be attractive to would-be buyers, yet remain within reach from a pricing perspective.


"While consumers might opt for smaller homes that better accommodate their budgets, this will be balanced by a reinvigorated focus on the neighbourhood. Rather than spending on expensive private or personal space, our broader community - and what we have access to in our immediate vicinity - will lead to a trend of living outside the home."


And what about the increase in working from home (WFH)? How will this intersect with mental health? A UK publication recently explored the mental health issues associated with working from home, and found that the majority (61%) of its respondents, somewhat surprisingly, indicated that they would prefer to return to the office, citing social and mental health issues. It seems that after the initial novelty of no longer being office-bound had subsided, people were realising that there was no longer a sense of work-life balance. They were no longer working from home, but effectively, living at work.


Yet WFH doesn't appear to be going anywhere, anytime soon. Facebook has indicated that it would allow employees to work from home until July 2021 and that it will transition half of its workforce to become permanently remote over the next decade - and many other companies across the globe are already following suit.


Prof. Viruly anticipates that there will be a rise in co-working spaces as employees continue to seek a sense of community or connection, while van Embden believes that there will also be far more attention on creating a dedicated workspace at home that promotes productivity: "We expect this to be an integral feature in many of the homes built in future.


"Where we live will take on multiple roles - our home will continue to be our sanctuary and place of shelter, but will now also become an economic hub, a classroom, and a space where we feel safe in meeting with friends and family. As our homes rapidly evolve to our new reality, we need to better understand their role in helping or hindering our mental wellbeing, and design accordingly," concludes van Embden.