Every industry has been dramatically transformed by COVID-19, and architecture is no exception. Over the past couple of months, we’ve spent more time indoors than ever before. This period of sheltering-in-place will have a lasting impact on the way we design, transform, and shape the world around us for years to come.
COVID-19 has forced us to question how we design and build our cities to better prepare for the future. As our behaviours and knowledge evolve, the built environment needs to evolve alongside it. So what role does architecture play in steering the change?
Pandemic changes to the built environment
We’ve seen a significant increase in capacity to the built spaces we currently inhabit. Public facilities such as hospitals have experienced a surge in patients, and most aren’t equipped to handle the dramatic increase — leading to pop-up facilities in pandemic epicentres like New York City, and the need to ‘flatten the curve’.
According to Craig Scully, partner and chief engineer at design firm Design Collaborative:
“The biggest thing to come to light during this is the inability for hospitals to accommodate the number of sick people.”
On the other hand, crowded public spaces such as airports, hotels, gyms, restaurants, bars, and offices have seen an immense decline in capacity. Unequipped for disease prevention and sanitation at scale, these areas have had to completely shut their doors in a bid to prevent viral spread.
With most public spaces closed, many of us have been forced to lock ourselves at home for weeks or months on end — leading to an increase in mental health-related problems. All of these changes are forcing us to radically think about how we reimagine cities in preparation for the next pandemic.
How did previous pandemics change the face of the built environment?
This isn’t the first time our cities have been reimagined and redesigned in the wake of a crisis, and it definitely won’t be the last.
In the 1800s, Haussmann’s renovation of Paris completely transformed the city in a bid to reduce overcrowding, disease, and crime. In 1854, London completely reconfigured its public health and sanitation facilities following the Broad Street Cholera outbreak. Across the Atlantic, New York City was reforming its tenement housing to create better conditions for its growing immigrant population with great success.
With an estimated 68% of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2050, it’s absolutely essential to design cities and buildings that are equipped to handle another pandemic outbreak.
Rebecca Katz, co-director of the Centre for Global Health Science and Security, and Robert Muggah, director of Brazilian-based think tank The Igarapé Institute, wrote:
“Precisely because they are hubs for transnational commerce and mobility, densely populated and hyper-connected cities can amplify pandemic risk.”
How can we reimagine the built environments of the future?
More than ever, architecture needs to reorient itself for social purpose and public safety post COVID-19. While it’s impossible to predict when or where the next pandemic or crisis will strike, architects play a key role in ensuring outdoor spaces remain safe and habitable in the future with the ability to stay open.
By looking at the current gaps in our environments and evolving our skillsets, we can start to shape the pandemic-resilient cities of the future.
Improved access and abundance of green spaces
Not all cities are equally vulnerable in the event of a pandemic. Cities with more open spaces tend to fare better during outbreaks because they allow people to be outside while also supporting social distancing measures.
During COVID-19, cities such as New York, Oakland, Calgary, and Cologne have closed off entire streets to give people more room to spend time outdoors. This is crucial moving forward: wider pavements and green spaces will provide us with a healthy and humane approach to outbreaks, without the need to shelter-in-place.
Improved sanitisation in public areas
How will safety change in buildings post COVID? Whether it’s office buildings, transportation hubs or sports stadiums, the overwhelming majority of experts predict that public spaces will need to integrate more automation to mitigate contagion. Touchless technology, such as automatic doors or voice-activated elevators, can help to eliminate the spread of bacteria.
At the same time, spaces with large volumes of foot traffic need to look at sanitisation at scale, either through UV disinfecting or similar. Architects can drive this change at the very early stages by integrating antibacterial materials or easy to clean wall protection systems into design and planning, and designing spaces that integrate touchless technology.
Building more flexibility into public healthcare
The spike in demand for hospital beds and ventilators has forced cities to rapidly respond with makeshift solutions. London created a temporary Nightingale Hospital in just nine days. In Wuhan, China, a hospital was built from the ground up in just ten days.
COVID-19 has revealed a gaping hole in our healthcare system. Cities should be able to scale their healthcare as needed, to meet any spikes in demand during pandemics. Having the space and capability to create rapid, temporary structures will be fundamental for city planning in the future, from public housing to hospitals.
Bringing the natural environment into the built environment
Shelter-in-place initiatives have revealed gaping holes in our urban home environments. Many lack natural light, space, and ventilation — all of which are essential to mitigate against the virus, and for our general mental health and wellbeing.
The future home setting needs to be designed with this in mind, while also answering the growing remote work trends. Biophilic design and additional space for home offices, together with improved air filtration systems, will contribute to building healthy, pandemic resilient homes moving forward. Meanwhile, apartment blocks should be built with multiple lifts and safety staircases, to lessen the concentration of people in one area.
And with that, the ‘new normal’ begins. What will you be creating differently, as soon as today?