Interest in the great outdoors has spiked dramatically in Australia’s capital cities due to Covid restrictions.

Recently released data from urban planning data analytics company Neighbourlytics shows that while online engagement – measured “digital chatter” across various different online platforms – with parks and other natural spaces increased across the CBDs in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, the same couldn’t be said for manufactured public spaces.

The data collected was restricted to a tight hyper-local neighbourhood scale within a one kilometre radius of the centre of cities, so figures were likely impacted by the number of actual residents living in these areas.

The research, which measured whether people’s geo-tagged lifestyle and behaviour data such as social media likes and venue reviews went up or down between February and May, confirmed several trends that may have already been predicted through anecdotal experience.

For example, mentions of dining ground to halt with most venues forced to close aside from takeaway throughout lockdown. Mentions of home cooking jumped up by 400 per cent in Melbourne and 367 per cent in Brisbane.

Sydneysiders, however, were perhaps more interested in the offerings of the businesses that had pivoted to takeaway or grocery offerings, with a decrease of 29 per cent in home cooking mentions.

Activity related to alcohol in these areas plummeted by a 233 per cent in Brisbane while Sydney’s increased by 30 per cent and Melbourne remained steady.

According to Lucinda Hartley, co-founder and CGO at Neighbourlytics, the data reflected a variation in severity and length of each city’s lockdown.

Brisbane overall saw less change than Melbourne, for example, which had the strictest lockdowns during the period.

As such, Melburnians spent the most time in parks and other natural spaces (a 112 per cent increase in user engagement). With playgrounds and other sport facilities closed and outdoor exercise the only option, all cities saw a rise in this type of engagement: Brisbane was up 17 per cent and Sydney up 36 per cent.

“It’s significant that people are seeking green space in this time because it highlights the inequality of access to parks and public spaces.”

In wellness and beauty, it will come as no surprise that health remains a key priority overall but a reduced engagement on “beauty” was reported, with people having nowhere much to go.

Beauty, including hairdressing, was down 53 per cent in Melbourne and 31 per cent in Brisbane, but up 36 per cent in Sydney.

Hartley says that this is significant because the beauty industry employs a disproportionate number of women, who have already been harder effected by the pandemic.

“This is something to consider as part of a recovery strategy.”

It was also no surprise to see creative industries suffering, including concerts and performances. But this doesn’t mean people haven’t been creative – in fact, digital chatter about creative pursuits increased – just that it’s become home based, with people turning to arts and crafts. Attractions, such as bowling clubs and cinemas, have also suffered as hobbies have gone indoors.

The data also revealed the importance of having a digital presence to keep people engaged throughout lockdowns, with the most resilient creative businesses adapting with virtual art shows and live online gigs. 

Hartley says the massive digital transformation – with everything from dry cleaners to local coffee stores now offerings services online – will change how we interact with our neighbourhoods long after the coronavirus threat passes.

“If we think about it in terms of work-from-anywhere, then where you chose to live will be driven by where you want to live rather than being forced to live close to work.”

It will likely change the game for urban design that’s typically focused on activating places to encourage people to “spend and stay” through carefully considered tenancies, branding and other tools for creating an atmosphere. In a fully digitally transformed world, Hartley suspects people will still want to go to places for experiences but will need to feel more personally connected to these places rather than “stuff just going on.”

Hartley says her company has been working with a range of different organisations interested in understanding how their industries will be impacted locally, such as attractions and shopping centres.

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