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Designing for a Post-Covid World: Urban Design

As cities, towns, neighborhoods, and individuals adapt to the challenges of our time, everyone is subject to the same environment immediately outside the front door. This often means the inability to run an errand, walk the dog, exercise, or socialize responsibly due to a lack of, or overcrowding of, a suitably-sized accessible public space. In a time of crisis, the built environment might be far from the forefront of people’s everyday thoughts. However, we can look back at these periods of turmoil and see how throughout history pivotal moments of public health crisis have dramatically shaped our common built environment for the better.

Architects and designers have a responsibility to create places and experiences that protect the health and well-being of the public. Like countless other professions, we have an ethical responsibility to improve daily life and public health where possible. In the wake of plaque ravaged Italy, the Renaissance flourished and with it the explosion of urban renewal focused on arts, humanities, public squares, and extensive fountain networks providing access to fresh air, clean water and sanitation to cramped city dwellers. During the industrial revolution cities across the globe dealt with an explosion of slums and horrendous living conditions with no sanitation or open space. Fatal outbreaks of cholera and tuberculosis commonly ripped through cities. Partially, as a result we saw the City Beautiful movement. A global design effort to re-imagine cities and their public spaces in a more humanist lens: large tree-lined boulevards in place of squalid alleys, open parks where industrial wastelands once dominated, public bathhouses for the working class. An idea that urban life need not be squalid and miserable had taken root.

In the 21st century, we’ve taken much of this foundation for granted, but in a post-Covid world, just as so many times in the past, we’ll need to imagine new and creative ways to modify our surroundings to adapt to the needs of public health. The toolbox is relatively simple, tried and true, and ultimately has the potential to permanently improve the vibrancy of our public spaces:

Understand and employ synergies that enhance the relationship between the public realm and private development. For instance, business owners that are able to expand onto sidewalks and parking spaces, rear courtyards and patios that expand outdoor space capacity, and roof decks that elevate the public above the potential crowds of the streets and sidewalks below.

Increase access to and quality of green space. Wherever possible maximize access to fresh air and sunlight. Recognize and place value on the benefits the natural world has on mental health.

Expand the public realm by shifting some of the space we’ve allotted to the automobile back to pedestrians and the service businesses that desperately need spacious, well ventilated spaces for their patrons. Use welcoming objects for barriers such as plantings and artwork, and wherever possible employ materials with natural antiseptic properties such as copper alloys for heavily used surfaces.

Plan and Implement innovative ways to supplement the widespread use of mass transit and rideshare programs. Strategic closings and/or narrowing of major roads to allow for increased pedestrian and bike travel in a safe manner provides an additional resource to help those who need not absolutely use mass transit.

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