With Covid-19 impacting every part of the lives of billions of people all over the world, it’s hard to imagine how things will ever be the same again.
Seen through our pandemic-distorted rear-view mirror, all the little things we took for granted this time last year – popping to the pub for a quick drink, throwing a birthday party, booking a hotel for a weekend break – now feel like the last days of Rome. Even watching films or TV shows shot a few months or years ago feels oddly discomforting: did we really stand so close to others in streets, stores and bars, shaking hands with strangers and embracing our friends without a second thought?
Our environment is evolving, too. We’ve already seen how supermarkets have adapted to create a low-contact experience – and the next few months will see a gradual re-opening of more retail outlets, as well as the re-introduction of hairdressing and beauty services. Will those of us who work in offices, studios, classrooms, shops and factories ever feel blasé again about sitting next to colleagues or doing the tea run?
In recent decades, our cities have become ever more densely populated, our high-rises, higher and our subways thronging with human life. How will the built environment change and how will architects respond? Even if this virus is subdued or controlled or sublimated, will the way we live and work and move around the world change for good?
The history of our towns and cities shows how buildings and infrastructure have evolved to overcome disease. You only have to look at the introduction of wider streets – built to accommodate modern sewage systems – and the advent of hygienic, easily cleaned surfaces in kitchens and bathrooms, to map our human progress from a health-led perspective.
It’s perhaps ironic that much contemporary design is predicated on opening up spaces – creating open-plan offices and food courts, for example. Sprawling shopping centres – like the Trafford Centre in Manchester and Sheffield’s Meadowhall – helped to define 1990s public infrastructure projects, while flexible co-working spaces like WeWork have recently become the cool choice for millennial start-ups and creatives. The question is: can we imagine returning to these very communal spaces, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our fellow workers, diners and shoppers, or are we in for an almighty shake-up of everything we once held to be certain?
At a basic level, we may see the acceptable density in offices change, with a move away from open-plan layouts, as well as better ventilation. In new or re-developments, wider corridors and doorways may also become the norm. In the short term, at least, it’s likely that legislation may mandate a minimum area per person in offices and a reduction in maximum occupancy for lifts and communal spaces like canteens.
Projected out into the wider built environment, this could mean fewer high-rise buildings, as their cost and operational effectiveness falls and – with more people working from home (Facebook has already announced that half its workforce will work remotely in the next ten years) – demand for office space in general may well plummet. It’s also likely that ‘contactless’ routes will be prioritised to allow employees to pass through buildings without touching buttons or door handles, instead using smartphone apps, motion sensors and facial recognition to navigate between departments.
One favourable side effect might be the inclusion of more green space in cities, as well as a re-examination of the provision of well-maintained footpaths and cycle routes. Perhaps it’s also an opportunity to explore the benefits of a less centralised and more distributed network of public
services – like hospitals and schools. People are already making increased use of local shops and services, travelling shorter distances and reducing the stress on public transport systems.
With a little more planning and political will, neighbourhoods could be reinvigorated, and communities brought closer together. Could this terrible and terrifying pandemic actually make us re-evaluate what’s really important in our society and inspire us to push those values to the top of the public agenda?