We are a culture of handshakes and hugs. Social connection is one of the fundamental psychological needs of all humans; it is a critical component of Abraham Maslow’s renowned hierarchy of needs. Yet for the first time for many people, the COVID-19 pandemic has required us to dramatically alter our habits and behaviors in order to protect our friends, families, and coworkers. As behavioral protective measures such as social distancing, increased hygiene, and the use of personal protective equipment, ripple out into the places where we live, work, learn and play, the design community is reflecting on the role of the built environment and adapting in real time.
This reflection has raised a conundrum: how do we protect individuals from viral threats while still fostering a sense of social belonging? Many of the strategies being proposed to keep our communities healthy–isolation, automation, sterilization, etc.–directly conflict with common practices and behaviors for engaging with one another to create social connections and enrich our lives.
Consider these design dilemmas:
- In senior living communities, social connections keep residents healthier longer, from increased levels of mobility to reduced rates of cognitive decline. But COVID-19 has had devastating effects on older populations and adult-care facilities. So how can we protect the health of residents and staff while maintaining the benefits of community living?
- In colleges and universities, the development of peer networks and interpersonal skills make students more likely to graduate, land a well-paying job, and keep healthy habits throughout their life. In the last few months, most schools have had to send students away from campus due to the high-risk and communal nature of classrooms, residence halls, and dining facilities. What sort of spatial and behavioral interventions can reduce infection risks yet support student life?
- In the workplace, social interaction and team building can lead to increased cognitive performance, employee engagement, and satisfaction. Some early thinking on how people will return the office once stay-at-home orders are lifted include solutions like reducing the in-office workforce, single direction circulation within the office, and even plastic “breath barriers” around individual desks. So how can we design in safe opportunities for interaction?
To address these dilemmas and more, the built environment must take a holistic approach that combines technology, design, and occupant behavior change to ensure safe social interaction. But we don’t have to start from scratch. Our approach will include some existing best practices, such as Smart City technology or biophilic interventions, which we expect to gain rapid adoption in the near future due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here I’m sharing three goals, at three different scales, that can support and enable healthy behaviors.
- Reinforce the role of neighborhoods as the building blocks of cities – and make our cities smart enough to withstand the next pandemic.
The lack of localized resources and public services in poor and minority communities is contributing to a disproportionate death rate as they face this public health crisis in lockdown. To keep the virus from spreading over the last two months, officials have effectively ground cities and mobility to a halt. When you are under a stay-at-home order, the resources available in your immediate vicinity are suddenly more important than ever before. Many low-income neighborhoods lag behind others in resources like primary care clinics, nearby job opportunities, and fresh food; while across town, people who have the option to stay home are also choosing to shop local, video chat their nearby primary care doctor, or decompress with a walk in their neighborhood park.
Another element that often gets overlooked is the importance of equitable green space for our public health infrastructure. While access to nature in an urban environment has always been associated with a range of health benefits, nascent studies into COVID-19 death rates show that people living with chronic illnesses and cities with lower air quality have higher death rates. And yet safe and beautiful outdoor experiences are often clustered in high-income areas, requiring residents that live further away to travel or forego the benefits of getting outside.
By focusing on the development of neighborhoods, investing in community services, supporting more people living close to where they work, and providing hyper-local access to critical public services and green spaces, we can help address these inequalities.
Taking a bigger picture view of how whole cities are responding and managing disease outbreaks, data continues to serve as powerful tool. Smart city platforms and technologies are one solution that can effectively leverage data to reduce the spread of coronavirus. Many of the cities harnessing Smart City technology have fared far better than their U.S. counterparts during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Singapore, the use of Smart City location-based technologies (the tech we use to hail a ride, trace our running route, or keep track of our kids) provided accurate contract tracing and predicted outbreak clusters that dramatically slowed the spread of COVID-19.
- Reexamine the value proposition for tomorrow’s workplace.
Planning interventions in the workplace that are responding to the short-term need to reduce the spread of coronavirus include keeping desks at the recommended 6 ft distance apart, ensuring employees are not facing one another, and creating smaller workspace neighborhoods. In cafeterias, atriums, and lobbies, we can reduce touching and contamination by limiting horizontal surfaces, such as tabletops and counters. There will also be investment in design solutions focused on infection control, such as motion sensors and voice control for elevators, automatic doors, or self-cleaning handles.
Beyond these initial reactions, for many companies, the pandemic has forced a rapid adoption of remote work that is likely to continue in the long term. In several cases, working from home has proven effective and some have even seen increases in productivity. The work from home experiment has also demonstrated that there are job roles and personality types that thrive with the flexibility and independence provided by remote work. But there are benefits that come from face-to-face interaction at the office, both for the individual worker and for the company.
These results have many building owners and designers wondering: what will the role of the office be going forward? We must rethink the office to provide opportunities to bring people together in new and more meaningful ways. The physical workplace may need a new value proposition.
- Reassess the selection of materials, systems, and products to support both physical and mental health.
The design of healthy, clean, and safe environments must break away from the stereotype of cold, sterile institutions. In the new era of post-pandemic design, it is more important than ever for the built environment to support wellness. Biophilic interventions with materials, textures and lighting can have positive impacts, but designers should also think about how people travel through the space, what they are seeing and touching, and where they can connect with each other.
Surfaces and finishes can be beautiful, enhance comfort, bring in nature, and still easy to clean. Examples include bringing in natural patterns by installing cleanable wood-like cladding or providing scenes from nature in the form of digital screens or cleanable artwork. For lighting, access to direct daylight is preferred, but when not available, circadian lighting can be leveraged to energize occupants during the day and provide a relaxing effect in the evening.
As people continue to experience higher than average levels of stress and anxiety related to the pandemic, our buildings can support psychological safety by leveraging the nature of the space. Designers can create a sense of refuge and protection using high-backed furniture and built-in seating alcoves, or on the flip side, they can maximize visibility by providing open views of the space around them.
Design is constantly evolving as we learn from what came before and adapt to new societal needs. As we have seen with COVID-19, when it is a matter of life or death, the rapid pace of new ideas and implementations is staggering. While it’s uncertain what the world will look like in six months, a year, or longer, it is up to designers to strike a balance between safety and our need for human connection in the built environment.