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A global view of design and urban planning post-COVID-19 (Part 1): Pandemic prevention

April 22, 2020

What role do planning and design have in helping to prevent pandemics in the future? Global leaders share their thoughts.

We asked an international panel of our experts to weigh in on several topics focused on the impact of COVID-19 on urban planning and design around the globe. This is the first of a four-part series featuring their answers.

Today’s question: Thinking about non-healthcare interventions like “mitigation,” “suppression,” and “quarantine,” what role do planning and design have in helping to prevent pandemics in the future?

Valentina Zanoni—Milano, Italy

Design has an important social role. It has the role of interpreting societal needs by translating them in an empathetic and innovative way.

Thanks to the ability to grasp the variety of signals and the changing needs that come from society, design has been a key element in the process of modernization of society itself. This way, design has always distinguished itself as a creative approach to complex problem-solving.

The total closure of nonessential activities and the rules of social distancing that are precluding us from using urban and public places that characterize the spirit of the city itself (offices, bars, restaurants, squares, parks, museums), do not represent a solution nor a direction that will define our way of living in cities. Those are temporary tools based on hygienic and sanitary principles responding to a state of emergency, they do not include an interpretation of needs and therefore do not enclose the planning process in themselves.

Milano, Italy

Creativity—capable of interpreting changes in society—and adaptability will be the mitigation that design and planning can support.

Possible actions are:

  • Maximize digital interfaces in order to make goods and food-distribution services accessible to everyone by structuring an articulated and powerful system, capable of replacing traditional methods of services distribution when needed.
  • Create temporary-use scenarios, such as review of the layout of bars and restaurants, as well as public and private offices in order to make them suitable for gradual opening and make them flexible in use and linked by digital infrastructures.
  • The use of open space could be a possible scenario for some activities normally developed and settled indoors.

Among many other aspects, planning is also a humanistic discipline. It is important to keep in mind that the problems we face in this pandemic situation require empathy, recognition of others’ difficulties, and a focus on interpreting needs.

In Italy, where many businesses and spaces still have a rather traditional footprint, we had to quickly reconfigure many sectors. For instance, teaching had to redefine the relationship between students and teachers through online learning. Industrial production, in many cases, was converted in order to respond to the request for sanitary supplies. Extemporaneous hospitals have popped up in all of the major cities in the country.

This whole experience was a challenging training ground for conversion, adaptation and flexibility. Design must continue to focus on innovation in order to counteract any potential regression brought by the pandemic.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Gwen Morgan—Plano, Texas, USA

Planning and design set the tone for how people interact with one another, and environment strongly influences human behavior. So, we as designers have a significant responsibility to play in a post-pandemic world. Our designs can “force” (through physical separation such as walls or mechanical systems) or “suggest” (through the use of tools like scale and pattern) that different behaviors take place within specific spaces—whether that equates to greater separation between people in areas of higher risk, better physical and mental support for our healthcare workers, or anything in between.

Additionally, many practical design measures may be implemented to mitigate the spread of disease in the future. Perhaps we will see:

  • Blurred lines between sectors, so that nonmedical settings such as hotels, convention centers, and community spaces are designed up front to be more easily transformed into emergency medical facilities on demand.
  • Separated HVAC systems for patients and visitors in hospital settings.
  • Increased use of limited to nonabsorbent materials in our buildings (acoustic panel ceilings, carpet, fabrics, etc.).
  • Increased flexibility and agility inherent in design and layout of spaces.
  • Walls and surfaces that are easily cleaned—whether that means more streamlined shapes that avoid ledges and hard-to-reach corners, or materials that can withstand being wiped down with disinfecting chemicals.
  • More widely available public amenities to support hygiene—public handwash stations, community showers, higher standards for restroom design and maintenance.
  • New space-allocation standards that allow for social distancing in place—for example, perhaps office planning will standardize at 6 feet minimum between people, seat spacing on airplanes may expand, waiting areas in hotels, airports, and doctor offices may be larger to allow for greater distance between seats.
  • Further developments in touchless technology like elevators and mass transit options.
  • Overall renewed emphasis on social justice and design equity for all.
  • Companies with large centralized campuses may decentralize to distribute their workforce and mitigate risk. Overall space demands may change if employees now expect to be able to work from home.
Design has an important social role. It has the role of interpreting societal needs by translating them in an empathetic and innovative way.

Richard Hsu—Taipei, Taiwan

As urban planners and designers, we cannot grasp the full parameters of the next epidemics. However, based on historical experience, the evolution of public health and its impact is influenced by the existing economic structure of the city and the strategies and responses utilized by regional institutions. This current crisis may be an important opportunity to promote the transformation of traditional planning approaches.

During this current pandemic, epidemiologists, biomathematicians, transportation departments, public health departments, and private organizations have used “space maps” to publish the status and predictions of the epidemic situation and distribution. If we look at this from a different perspective, urban planners also can join to fight against disease if we can enhance the interpretation of the spatial information flow model behind the big data driving the space maps. It might be possible to propose a kernel algorithm—like the weather forecast model predicting the trajectory of a typhoon.

In every major epidemic, the site selection for large-scale, response-focused health facilities always attracts people’s attention. For example, the Beijing Xiaotangshan Hospital during the SARS period and the Wuhan Vulcan Mountain Hospital during this COVID-19 pandemic, have been able to help manage and reverse the situation in these times of crisis. However, the fate of these temporary hospitals after the pandemic have become a problem. Xiaotangshan was abandoned immediately after the SARS epidemic because it was no longer needed, and because of its location outside the city proper. Until recently, it was called “Silent Hill.” However, it was put back into service to treat COVID-19 patients in March 2020.

Urban planners may be able to help with location selection for temporary epidemic treatment facilities in support of long-term viability, strengthen transportation and urban infrastructure access, as well as prescribe action plans (concentration, evacuation, rehabilitation) to avoid being forced to reactivate and prepare a facility and site only after an epidemic occurs.

Arguably, public health can no longer afford being a cookie-cutter factor in infrastructure planning and construction. It is necessary to examine the current needs and balance these against future population dynamic needs, resource allocation, and actively promote collaboration between public health and urban spatial planning through a resilience perspective.

Alan Kerr—Wellington, New Zealand

I do think there is a role for planning and design in mitigating the effects and in recovery. There are three facets to this:

  • Short-term response to the disease: This is far reaching and could be through the design and implementation of temporary medical facilities, assisting with repatriation, mitigation of spread through enabling home working, planning for maintenance of the supply chain, etc.
  • Immediate response to ensuing economic downturn: Governments are likely to turn to construction as a mechanism for restarting the economy. Projects that are shovel ready are likely to be fast tracked and planners/designers have a key role to ensure the right decisions are made regarding the projects that should be initiated. There is likely to be a significant amount of planning work as economies adjust to the “new normal”—economic and transport models are likely to need adjusting, designs may need modifying, services are likely to be put under pressure in ways that were not previously envisaged. Some parts of the economy are likely to require more assistance than others. The aviation sector is likely to be very different during the recovery phase. In countries and regions heavily dependent on tourism (e.g., New Zealand), the tourist sector is going to have to go into partial hibernation on the expectation that international tourism will take longer to recover than other sectors.
  • Long-term structural changes: Longer-term effects will depend on the extent of the spread of the virus, the duration of the health concerns, the nature/depth of the economic downturn, and any policy levers that might be pulled. In New Zealand, consideration of seismic resilience has increased markedly since the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes. Similarly, pandemic avoidance/mitigation/suppression/resilience is likely to become a significant design and planning consideration moving forward. Governments may intervene to a greater extent in urban form than previously and some may see it as an opportunity to make changes that previously would’ve been considered too hard (for example, more ambitious environmental policies).

Wellington, New Zealand

Tom Young—Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Pandemic is still an acute and exceptional circumstance, and to design everything around pandemic considerations would be counterproductive to well-functioning and enjoyable cities the rest of the time. As scary and all-encompassing as this crisis has been, I think we must assume that there will be public health solutions to manage or eliminate the virus, that will make this a shorter-term situation.

Planning and design response should continue to focus on building urban places and systems that do a really good job of facilitating our everyday economic and social needs, layering in pandemic considerations where they align. I think pandemic considerations should become a lens we look at planning and design through but not the primary driver.

Keith Mitchell, Scott Witchalls—Reading, United Kingdom

Living standards are becoming increasingly important in design considerations. We have seen a reemergence of standards such as the Design for Life Standard, Lifetime Homes, and the WELL Standard, which are now being reapplied to development.

None of these address issues relating to the pandemic directly but do offer opportunities to consider better living and home working, such as air-quality standards, better lighting, and access to communication infrastructure.

It would be more pertinent now to take the learning related to implementing an emergency response and apply it to climate change response, a global emergency that currently does not have the same radical interventions applied to it.

We know for certain that this virus (and similar pandemics) are spread primarily through close physical contact or surface contamination in public-use spaces (e.g., public transport, elevators, door handles). Since it is proven that reducing such contact reduces the spread of the disease, we need to design places that can be set up to operate and function in a different way when required. This means we need to design in resilience plans that enable communities to be self-sustaining when necessary, and able to self-isolate without significantly affecting economic and social well-being.

Examples could include:

  • Flexible building use zones with “plug-and-play” building design (office to lab space, car park to food production, warehouse to field hospital, etc.)
  • Clean food production areas and automated home food-delivery systems
  • Digital systems and communication networks that can process community scale requirements into physical delivery and provide social interaction platforms for all to use
  • Economies that can be successful by minimizing the need to travel (Walkable Cities Concept)

Nels Nelson—Delft, Netherlands

Urban planning and architecture, or the lack thereof, influences the shape and structure of our cities, which then influences the transmission of diseases.

The famous John Snow map of London’s cholera outbreak is cited as the beginning of both epidemiology and urban design. It demonstrated that health is reliant on the built environment. A stand-alone framework for control of communicable diseases in cities would be extremely costly—hence the limits of the current public health sector-led approaches. A more effective path is to integrate epidemic prevention into existing and future urban planning, management, budgets, programs, and strategies to avoid the next would-be deadly pandemic.

This is the first in a four-part series devoted to highlighting the views of Stantec international staff around the effects of COVID-19 on urban planning and design globally. Next Up: How will we look at workplace design, and urban design and planning differently post-COVID-19?

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