Salus journal

Healthy Planet. Healthy People.

Science & research / Healthy Cities

Research to address the challenges of physical distancing in urban settings

By Andrew Sansom 29 Apr 2020 0

Princeton University in New Jersey has allocated funding for new research that will consider the challenges of physical distancing in towns and cities, and explore strategies that minimise the effects of potential resurgences of COVID-19 and other future pandemics.

Professor Paul Lewis and Professor Guy Nordenson are one of seven teams awarded up to $100,000 for faculty-led research projects with the aim of accelerating solutions to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their research proposal, ‘Manual of urban distance: Strategies for reconfiguring the city’, focuses on the fact that physical distancing has been especially crucial in the dense urban environments of cities, as the rate of infection in these settings greatly outpaces those in suburban or rural areas. The density of the city, which has historically been considered its greatest asset, economically, socially and environmentally, is now seen as at odds with the realities of a pandemic, and has become a crippling vulnerability.

Recommendations given by the government and the medical community have been behavioural in nature, but Lewis and Nordenson propose that these have the potential to be translated and built into the context of the city through a manual or toolkit of design analyses and spatial propositions. Design strategies addressing collective spaces such as public transportation, the streetscape, and parks have the potential to recalibrate the city in order to better negotiate the incompatibility between the functional density of urban spaces and the protection of the health, safety and welfare of the public in the face of communicable disease, and help influence a transition to a more ecologically viable city.

Underscoring the urgency of this proposal is the concern that the long-term consequences of the global coronavirus pandemic may equate cities with fear and trigger a future collapse of urban life and culture. The researchers therefore note the importance of providing clear solutions to change spatial practices as a means of controlling the spread of the virus while reinforcing the image of the city as spaces of vibrant and manageable collective public life.

Lewis and Nordenson will begin by analysing how recent spatial practices in denser cities, such as Hong Kong, Taipei and Seoul, have resulted in lower infection rates. They will analyse the emerging models, and propose new strategies that do not simply mitigate the spread of disease but which also sustain and enhance the very aspects of the city that we value: diversity, vibrancy and communication. They believe that urban life can be enriched precisely by engaging multiple aspects of environmental change and crises, of which pandemics are only one.

As the early epicentre of the outbreak in the United States, New York City will serve as a case study for this research. It is anticipated that the developed design manual / visual toolkit will be adopted and deployed by urban areas whose outbreaks are peaking later. The area of investigation will be the public spaces of the city with particular focus on transit systems (subway, buses, bicycle infrastructure), streetscapes (sidewalks, plazas) and parks (recreation areas, promenades, playgrounds).

The research will be conducted in two phases, roughly aligning with the anticipated timeline of COVID-19 and the lifting of mandated stay-at-home orders, as it is understood at this point in the crisis. At the end of each phase, the project team will produce a manual of strategies corresponding to the particular intensity and challenges of that phase.

The intention is to publish the manual online to provide an accessible resource and guide for politicians, policymakers, public agencies and planners in New York, the United States, and across the globe. 

Organisations involved