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Healthy Planet. Healthy People.

Cities / Community resilience

How the design of places can respond to the crisis and shape society’s recovery

By Andrew Sansom 07 Apr 2020 0

In the first week of the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown, the Design Council convened through digital means a group of built environment experts to brainstorm some practical ways in which the design community could provide immediate support to issues relating to people living in social isolation.

The main focus of the medical emergency presented by COVID-19 concerns governmental resources, but there are many other effects on people beyond the virus itself. The group of experts recognise that the lockdown has brought new demands on our home environments, revealing whether we have sufficient space, both in quantity and quality, to work at home, teach our children, and allow them to play freely. Psychologically, people are coming to terms with an individual and collective loss of normalcy, with much uncertainty and, presently, little hope of relief. With this in mind, the Design Council used its discussion to ask a key question: how can our places and place-based systems better support us in this time? 

The following presents a summary of some of the ideas discussed by the group, and in conversation with the Design Council’s design associates. 

Matching repurposed spaces with people who need it 

In a similar way to how data is being used to identify medically vulnerable groups, the group see potential in using datasets to identify which areas have the largest groups requiring additional support or space, and then matching these groups with  the necessary built environment assets to support them. Examples might include efforts to: ensure natural spaces remain open; repurpose public buildings for accommodation or quiet space; and reconfigure streets for recreation and physical distancing.

Ensure natural spaces remain open 
Natural spaces support better mental health and provide places for recreation for physical health. As well as their positive impact on health and wellbeing, they can provide a useful source of safe social interaction at a distance, physical activity and, in the case of garden allotments, for example, food. According to the group of experts, local authorities, conservation organisations and committees should safeguard  and  promote recreational and therapeutic use of natural spaces. Rather than being shut in a lockdown scenario, natural spaces should instead have clearer guidance about how they can be continued to be used in a safe manner. 

Repurpose public buildings for accommodation or quiet spaces 
Many homes lack sufficient space for people to work or study from home for any length of time. The temporary  repurposing of public facilities, such as libraries and sport centres, for consistent socially distanced work or study could provide much needed quiet and respite. Some systematic oversight, however, would be required, suggests the group.  

Reconfigure streets for recreation and physical distancing

With fewer safety risks owing to vastly reduced vehicular traffic, streets could be used to provide much needed space for people who need safe access to the outdoors within the limits of physical distancing, for exercise or outdoor work, and for children who need temporary space for play. Offering several examples, the group of experts suggests the pavement could be temporarily extended into the street, parking spaces could be reworked as micro parks, and whole residential streets could be closed to  vehicular  traffic. All this could be achieved using just traffic cones, tape, and a map – but, again, guidelines and an emergency framework should underpin such measures.  

Small interventions, such as designating streets differently and stating clearly what sorts of things are allowed and/or what is prohibited, could rapidly free up huge amounts of space and overcome any need to be too prescriptive, says the group.  

Sharing  grassroots innovations 

The Design Council’s virtual discussion also suggested a platform for grassroots innovations and a compendium of emergency  responses to help disseminate these ideas, allowing others to learn from other’ experiences and about how solutions are already being applied.   

Emergency framework directory of new places 

Local knowledge and circumstance will have already helped many people and communities to repurpose space to meet their needs during this time of crisis. But the design experts suggested a need for a more joined-up, commonly understood network of spaces that people can access and use – supplemented by clear messaging, eg, ‘These streets can be used for play and exercise’. Councils will likely need to be engaged on such an initiative but features of a network of spaces could include: 

  • make-do street space;
  • exercise/activity:  establish/compile fixed distance local walking and exercise routes; ​
  • children’s play: ‘social-distance-friendly’ play activities and areas;  
  • local food production  spaces;
  • work and study spaces; and  
  • active travel routes.

Implications for designing places in the future 

The COVID-19 crisis and current lockdown present many questions about how we design our cities, towns and communities in the future. Some will argue we need to build bigger homes. Some will make the case for more open spaces. And others will call for the setting up of future protocols of emergency behaviour and spaces. 

While the more urgent and immediate challenges are of chief concern at present, it’s important, says the Design Council, to start collecting data on how our behaviours are changing and the impact this is having on our relationship with the built environment. This, the charity adds, will help  organisations and decision-makers evaluate the waste that was occurring previously and whether new  practices  are  delivering social, environmental and economic improvement. Data and evidence must be gathered to demonstrate the impact of our new localised lives, how places hinder or support this need, and to capture the opportunity to implement positive change.  

Design challenges

To this end, the Design Council has devised the following challenge statements to help it – and the design community more broadly – focus efforts over the coming months and in the longer term: 

  1. How can we retrofit neighbourhoods, urban public space and green space to allow for low-density exercise and play that is good for social trust and mental wellbeing? 
  2. How can we create safe and hygienic transportation, which allows the resilient supply and movement of people, food and equipment to the right places at the right time? 
  3. How can we repurpose or re-use buildings, housing and accommodation to allow for physically and mentally healthy self-isolation and home working? 
  4. How can we utilise and build on current behaviour changes and appreciation of nature to address global warming and reducing greenhouse gas emissions? 
  5. How can we ensure ongoing relief efforts are equitable and inclusive?

Contributors to the discussion were: Maayan Ashkenazi, Andrew Cameron, Cat Drew, Beatrice Fraenkel, Gyorgyi Galik, Tim Gill, Marcus Grant, Sabina Mohideen, Sue Morgan, Peter Neal, Deb Upadhyaya and Camilla Ween.

The Design Council says it will be running regular roundtables over the coming months, convening its partners and consolidating all the knowledge and information it gathers, to help answer these challenges and provide some direction for the ongoing and post-crisis response.

Organisations involved