COVID-19 and architecture: combating coronavirus by stepping outside
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, architects and building owners have an opportunity to step outside and look ahead to a post-coronavirus world.
I’m going to level with you: I’ve been a pretty anxious person these days. I find myself obsessively checking epidemic trendlines, scrutinizing models, reading articles, and stress-watching the news . . . waiting for the next update, the next shoe to drop.
Now is a good time to sit back, breathe, and think about moving past the current crisis. What steps can we as stewards of the built environment take after we return to some level of normalcy? How will the use of buildings change as a result of this shock to our society? When the coronavirus ends, will we become more flexible in our consideration of in-office and remote work? And what about our use of outdoor space?
In a recent article in The Architect’s Newspaper, Phil Bernstein wrote the following:
There’s little doubt the post-COVID-19 world will look different—politically, economically and architecturally—than it looked in February. . . . leaders are best prepared when they spend some of their current efforts managing through turbulent times toward that future, whatever it might be.
We are at a rare crossroads in history. This is a time during which everybody is thinking about the same thing and asking the same questions. Sure, uncertainty about the future creates fear . . . but it also creates opportunity. I read Bernstein’s comment as a challenge to architects to embrace those opportunities. One such opportunity exists in how we will modify outdoor spaces, from café patios to city streets.
Combating Coronavirus with a Cup of Coffee and a Blanket?
Last year, on a brisk September day, I looked around my Lincoln Square neighborhood in Chicago. All the outdoor seating had been brought in for the winter. Perfectly useful outdoor spaces, just a couple of days before bustling with activity, were now deserted.
Contrast that with a trip my wife and I took to Copenhagen, Denmark during a particularly cold April in 2018. While walking past a series of cafés, we noticed that all the outside chairs had fluffy flannel blankets laid out on them. We also saw space heaters interspersed among the chairs. It was early in the morning and all the chairs were empty. A couple hours later, we passed by the same stretch—it was now filled with Danes eating, drinking coffee, and socializing . . . all while wrapped up in these blankets.
This exemplifies the concept of “hygge,” or cold weather coziness culture. Check out this CityLab piece to learn how its lessons might be brought to bear on the current coronavirus crisis and what American culture can learn from it in the long term.
With the specter of disease now gripping our country, can we draw from our knowledge that fresh, moving air and sunlight impede the coronavirus (and other diseases) to reassess our outdoor spaces?
With the specter of disease now gripping our country, can we draw from our knowledge that fresh, moving air and sunlight impede the coronavirus (and other diseases) to reassess our outdoor spaces? As they reopen their outdoor spaces, restaurant and café owners are exploring the best way to achieve the minimum six-foot distance between seated customer groups. They should also rethink how they schedule and arrange their patios, decks, sidewalk spaces, and nearby plazas. Perhaps these outdoor extensions can open earlier in the year. If provided with enough comfort items like space heaters and blankets, can Americans, too, learn to embrace the simple pleasure of drinking hot coffee outside on a cold morning?
The Road to Social Distancing
During the first stages of the quarantine, I noticed something interesting during my neighborhood walks: previously, there were dedicated territories for runners, cyclists, walkers, and cars. You had a clear delineation of space between the sidewalk and the road, and it was very well understood who belonged where. Today, however, everyone is everywhere. When approaching others in the same path, families, individuals walking their dogs, and joggers will deviate from their territory and go straight down the middle of the road.
The social distancing that has been hammered into our minds has allowed us to see these territories differently. If the middle of the road is the only place I can go to get where I am going while maintaining that distance, then that’s where I go. Several municipalities have adopted the “Slow Streets” movement, which uses a mix of street closures or reduced speed on neighborhood roads to provide space for people to walk, bike, or run during the pandemic. Some dense cities, such as Chicago, whose sidewalks are not large enough to handle the number of people who want to use them, have come under fire for lagging behind in the adoption of Slow Streets.
Schools Outmaneuver Disease: Send Students Outside
I have participated in the design of many school buildings and observed children using interior spaces. What indoor element draws students more than any other? Windows. That’s because children have an innate yearning to be outdoors. Natural light and fresh air have, after all, assisted with student performance and concentration. In recent years, many schools have capitalized on research about outdoors and learning to expand outdoor learning areas.
And now there is yet another strong argument for the development of outdoor learning spaces: the risk of disease transmission is lower outside than inside, according to Harvard Medical School. Now that most American schools are closed for the remainder of the academic year, educators have an opportunity to consider how to create more outdoor learning opportunities in a post-coronavirus world. What kinds of outdoor spaces can enrich curricula, encourage socialization, or support lessons? Are there underused outdoor areas that can be transformed into outdoor classrooms, recreational spaces, or learning gardens?
To Look Ahead, Step Outside
During April, the quarantine, coupled with some nasty weather here in the Midwest, gave many of us a new appreciation for the outdoors and its healing properties. Suddenly, the idea of taking a walk took on new meaning. It is with this appreciation that I encourage architects, builders, and building owners to consider the role of outdoors in strengthening public health.
When it comes to COVID-19, how do we get out of the woods? One answer sounds strange to say: we go outside.
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