Amidst all this uncertainty due to COVID-19, one thing is for certain—every single aspect of our designed environment, from buildings to parks, furniture, and materials will require a re-thinking and a re-evaluation. All of us—designers, users, funders, policy makers, business leaders, and advocates, must take a stand and be more demanding of the spaces we inhabit. The four opportunities noted below are not in order of importance – all must occur in parallel and in conjunction with each other.
Opportunity #1: Balancing flexibility and adaptability
Much of design is typically centered on ways to create community and bring people together. The pandemic raised awareness of the importance of balancing togetherness and aloneness in many building types. Workplace design has long moved away from the “closed” office and toward the open one, where desks are often lined-up next to each other. Flexibility and adaptability in furniture and wall design will enable modifications in both size and arrangements that promote the creation of “separated” work-spaces when separation is needed along with “together” ones for meetings and gatherings.
The same principles can guide residential design, by creating for example, over-the-garage auxiliary units that can be used for quarantine or being intentional in planning apartments with a bedroom/bathroom combination that is away from the main living areas of the unit. Furniture design can complement these efforts – think of a chair that engenders the feeling of safety and comfort where a child with special needs can retreat to and decompress or focus to study.
Cleaning is also expected to take on a life of its own, with the potential to become a cumbersome and anxiety-inducing activity. Design innovations such as an office desk surface that notifies you when it has not been cleaned or materials that do not allow viruses to stick and are easy to wipe, disinfect, and maintain must be explored and expanded. Disinfecting stations can take the form of designated counter spaces in kitchens and accessible storage space outside apartment entrances.
Aspects of the designed environment that can be re-examined range from elements such as doors to space layouts and site planning. In healthcare settings, doors with a glass panel were found to exacerbate the stress of quarantined patients who could watch medical staff discuss their case. The tents that currently serve as the setting for testing in many hospitals around the country can be replaced with clinics designed with multiple entrances and wards that can be closed-off. Senior living facilities experienced challenges stopping the virus from spreading and maintain connections between residents and loved ones. And lastly, retail spaces have relied on solutions such as the drive through pick-up, Plexiglas to buffer cashiers and customers, and one-way aisles. Given the numbers of grocery store employees getting infected and many dying, a complete transformation might be needed, with robotic-assisted stocking and automated monitoring.
Opportunity #2: Eliminating inequality and disparities
The pandemic brought to the foreground the hidden nuances behind the “We are all in this together” motto. Communities of color, Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are disproportionately affected, experiencing higher death rates and unemployment. The country’s rising inequality and lack of health insurance along with the increased risk for chronic health conditions these populations experience are explanations for why Navajo Nation lost more people to coronavirus than 13 states. Similar inequalities and fears of the virus spreading abound for all those living in crowded conditions, be they refugees in refugee camps, immigrants in detention centers, incarcerated people, and those living in slums.
Design interventions that can help mitigate health, income, and educational disparities include carving out spaces for parks and places to safely exercise in urban areas with concentrations of people of color along with creating forums for traditional healing sounds like the drum to spread through communities. Pre-fabricated housing units that can take the place of the cardboard and aluminum siding shelters that now overtake slums along with portable ways to provide water and sanitation can also be instrumental. And lastly, global poverty cannot be addressed without an introspection of supply chains that may be steeped in colonialism’s after-effects and continued impacts. Questions regarding whether materials are ethically sourced or tied to forced labor, human trafficking, and environmental destruction both in the US and abroad need to be inherent in all decision-making processes.
Opportunity #3: Supporting well-being
Experiences of fear, anxiety, headaches, muscle tension, and difficulty concentrating are expected to exacerbate the pandemic’s aftermath. Front line responders are at an increased risk for PTSD and teenagers, having a heightened sensitivity to stress, seeing their identity and support networks being challenged and their memories, such as canceled graduations, not materialize can be very anxious for the future. Many people are finding new ways to cope, from meditation to exercise and social connectedness even as working from home has meant that the work day has increased by 3 hrs .
Walking has been lauded by public health experts as an essential activity that supports physical and mental well-being and aspects of the environment, such as tree-lined streets with boulevards and sidewalks encourage walking. For the millions around the world who live in apartment buildings, balconies attain a central role in supporting well-being and fostering solidarity locally and globally. In Cyprus, neighbors used balconies to play bingo while in France, a balcony transformed into a stage for performances in support of health workers by Mulhouse Symphonic Orchestra violinist Jessy Koch. One of the most touching examples comes from Greece, where candle-lit balconies during the midnight Easter service inspired Dionysis Savvopoulos, a Greek song-writer to state: “We have never been more together.” I cannot imagine an apartment building being constructed without balconies after these lessons.
Opportunity #4: Caring for the environment
For the first time in our lifetime, the lockdown gave us a chance to see and feel what Los Angeles’ sky looks like without the smog, how jellyfish can glide through Venice’s canals when they are freed of boats and over-tourism, and the peaceful nesting of sea turtles in Florida’s beaches with less plastic, humans, and vehicles. We now have to be more committed than ever to alternative means of energy that can reduce pollution and emissions and to a sharing economy that relies on less resources and materials. We can also expect more of the spaces we design and aspects of the environment can be asked to multi-task. Streets and parking lots, which consume much of our landscape, are under-utilized with fewer cars on the roads, opening up opportunities for explorations of additional possibilities.
We can no longer avoid the tough questions. Our metrics should be relative to the expectations we have for ourselves and the communities we hope to build and in which we want to be live.