Urban Design Shift – How Will COVID Affect the Design of Places?

September 18, 2020

One of the biggest questions facing developers, planners, and architects is how to respond to the COVID outbreak. With the increased need for social distancing, reduction in public transport, and the widespread adoption of work-from-home, developers are having to think outside the box.

Historical Context
Changes in urban planning and design because of pandemics aren’t new ideas. European cities reacted to the Black Plague by reducing density in city centers and trying to spread out the population to fight the spread of disease. In the 18th and 19th centuries, city planners created broad boulevards, built citywide sewer systems, and brought indoor plumbing to buildings to fight cholera epidemics.

Developers have also used green spaces to control disease and fight poor air quality. One of the chief proponents of Central Park in Manhattan was Frederick Law Olmstead, a sanitary officer in the Civil War. Olmstead argued that green spaces would act as the lungs of a city, cleaning the air and reducing the spread of disease. His ideas quickly spread, and developers were soon adding green spaces throughout cities across the country.

Learning from the past will be a large factor in how developers can respond to COVID. Decentralization and reducing urban density has historically been one of the most effective ways to fight the spread of viruses and bacteria, and the response to COVID will be no different.

What changes can developers and architects make in a post-COVID era?

Throughout history, developers have changed the design of places to react to the spread of disease. In the COVID era, that can mean making spaces further apart, integrating more green space, and making it easier for residents to get from place to place without the need for public transportation.

Decentralization is one of the most significant changes that developers and planners can expect to see happening. With cities limiting the number of people that can be in a location at once, large communal areas have found it challenging to keep volumes up. Removing these large, crowded places and creating more, smaller ones allows residents to continue their day-to-day lives and be unaffected by occupancy limits. For example, instead of creating one large central park, some developers are opting instead to create many smaller green spaces around their communities. Not only does this increase the accessibility of green spaces to residents, but it also allows people to physically distance and feels safe in parks.

In addition to decentralizing communities, COVID has led to changes in the interior design of shared spaces. Physical distancing is one of the most important aspects of reducing the spread of COVID, and interior areas have to adapt to this new concept. Restaurants have reacted to physical distancing requirements by spreading tables further apart, and retailers have responded by enacting one-way aisles and building dividers between clerks and customers. When creating new construction, these changes need to be taken into account. When creating new spaces, designers are creating larger, more open areas that allow people to physically distance. These larger spaces account for the movement of people, and their design naturally tells users how to interact with the space without the need for signage. These new spaces also use more modern and easier to clean materials, so employees have to spend less time cleaning and sanitizing the space and can instead work with customers and patrons.

Throughout the pandemic and the lockdowns that came with it, one of the major issues that has emerged is the mental health aspect associated with an extended lockdown. Studies have shown general increases in stress, anxiety, and depression related to isolation and the pandemic. Green spaces have been proven to help reduce stress, beautify areas, and improve property values, and are a great addition to any development. Not only can these green spaces beautify a community or development, but they can act as gathering areas for residents long after the pandemic has ended.

COVID is sure to change how developers and designers plan their communities. Spaces will need to be more open to allow for greater distancing, and built with modern, easy to clean materials.

How will this affect your community? Use our Density Guide Calculator to find more about how density affects different communities. You can also download our Post-COVID Multifamily Brochure for more on how COVID will affect multifamily housing. JHP are experts in development and community planning and can help you as you design your post-COVID spaces. Feel free to reach out to us with any questions, or if you’re ready to start a new project!