For many of us, the coronavirus pandemic is the most significant public health emergency that we have experienced in our lifetime and it will continue to have a profound and lasting effect on so many aspects of our lives, including the design of our public spaces. It is, however, not the first time a virus has affected design and infrastructure; Victorians embraced the outdoors as a place to improve physical and mental health, and the minimal furnishings and open concept interiors of tuberculosis treatment centers influenced modernist design.
The simple act of seeing other people, of sharing space with others, is a fundamental part of the human experience, and public spaces are one of the few spaces that still offer the opportunity to engage social behavior. However, the unique characteristics of COVID-19 will undoubtedly impact how we design public spaces like schools, offices, and grocery stores, to allow for healthier interaction while gathering post-pandemic. Here are some of the trends we expect to see in the future of public space design.
The pandemic was – and continues to be – a stressful, anxiety-provoking situation for us all. We have had to give up control in so many areas of our lives and it’s difficult, after months of isolation and remote work, to imagine stepping back into a crowded building and trust that safety protocols are being followed.
Using design intentionally to empower occupants of a space is a tool that can be leveraged to increase feelings of comfort and trust. The intentional choice to layer simple safety measures, like plexiglass barriers, into existing design, allows organizations to welcome employees, students and customers back to a familiar, recognizable place, which is comforting. Contrastingly, using this opportunity as a chance to completely overhaul and remodel, can be disconcerting to people – changing everything they knew about the space during a time when so much has already changed for them. Visual displays of efforts to keep them safe are important to building trust and comfort as well. Clear signage and plentiful resources, like access to hand sanitizers, and allowing cleaning and sanitation crews to work in plain sight are all ways of designing a space to increase trust and convey the space is safe.
Designing spaces that give employees actual control over their environment is a way to increase their sense of entity and empowerment in a difficult time. This can be as simple as allowing them to open windows or choose where to sit. When possible, providing outdoor spaces to retreat to or work in are great ways to increase that sense of agency and control over a situation after months of having very little control.
Misconceptions or risk aversion to reopening public space could have a devastating impact on our country’s museums and important educational centers like aquariums and zoos. It’s important for designers to really understand what goes into making a space safe and working with those factors, rather than assuming any public space is automatically unsafe.
Because of this particular virus’s transfer through respiratory droplets, air flow, quality and surface disinfection have risen as priorities with design impacts. We can expect to see this reflected in our public spaces through increased cleaning rotations, virus-killing ultraviolet light for disinfecting surfaces and in HVAC systems, air filters and more touch-free technology to reduce germ transfer on high-touch areas like doors and sinks. Design changes that affect behavior, like one-way hallways, staggered arrival and departure times, and reduced seating areas are all potential solutions to controlling crowds in public spaces.
After years of the cube farm, companies had turned to the open-office communal floor plan to aid in collaboration, synergy and a less hierarchical design structure. The airborne nature of the coronavirus has architects and designers rethinking that design direction, walling workspaces back in to inhibit the transfer of germs.
Beyond disease spread, a hybrid work environment and remote workers means that video conferencing is here to stay – at least for now. Open concept spaces don’t lend themselves to competing zoom calls, so intentional video conferencing space and private areas will be necessary.
Whether it’s plexiglass partitions or rolling, fabric screens, we expect to see commercial spaces to incorporate design elements that allow for flexible partitioning and separation between people. One article predicts the rise of the “oficle,” a semi-private space that serves as an office/open work area/conference room hybrid.
Semi private spaces can fulfill our desire for the “third spaces” that we have come to miss during the pandemic. Third spaces are social and cultural spaces that bring us together, such as social clubs, religious gatherings or neighborhood festivals, even coffee shops and coworking spaces. Third spaces provide a setting that feels like home, but is not home, and it’s also not work. Public space can lean into the idea of third spaces by including semi-private spaces within larger spaces, for small groups to congregate safely.
The pandemic has forced our hand in committing to remote work and, while many miss the gathering place of an office, one study showed over a third of US jobs could be completed remotely. This would cause a significant reduction in on-site work, which would have a permanent impact on the design of public spaces. Including remote workers in a seamless way through video conferencing and other digital solutions means our spaces will have to adjust to allow for supervision, collaboration and social interaction between on-site and remote workers. Without this, remote workers can quickly become disconnected from the team and feel they’re missing out on career opportunities. It’s bad enough if a few workers feel this way, but it’s untenable for one third of the American workforce to feel held back and disenfranchised at work.
At Vector Solutions, we’ve long believed in the power of digital solutions to bring us closer and keep us safer. Harnessing the power of intelligent design to create safe public spaces is a benefit to us all. From increasing feelings of trust and empowerment to providing critical safety and industry compliance training, we have the resources to continue to support our workforce and give them the opportunity to engage in meaningful work and advance their careers. How we design our public spaces has a direct impact on us, on our happiness and wellbeing. We can’t go back to the way things were before, but, we’re confident we have the tools necessary to create a future that is even brighter and more exciting for students and employees. And we’re here to help.