As we endeavor to improve the built environment, we at TONO Group are always considering possible answers to the question: “What makes a place meaningful?” To us, meaningful places are those that touch the soul and inspire better business, better home life, better entertainment, better work, and more. At their core, meaningful places engage people and lift them to some higher level of performance.
Now we’re collectively dealing with the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a world that’s been rocked by widespread disease, a flurry of discussions has formed around social distancing, around finding creative ways to install barriers between people for their own health and safety. As Oscar Holland has noted in a recent article on the change this crisis is bringing to our cities, “…the idea of keeping people apart seems to contradict the emphasis planners have traditionally placed on human interaction. Architects, whether designing parks or social housing, have often valued meeting points as sources of collaboration, inclusion and community-building.”
Places are Built to Bring People Together
Indeed, we primarily design and build places to bring people together, not keep them at a distance. Since the start of the pandemic, at both a local and global scale, we’ve layered on restrictions to our valuable gathering places, leaving them artificially altered. Things like plastic partitions, prominent safety signage, designated queue areas with colored lines marking a six-foot distance between shoppers, touchless pay systems and door access, automated cleaning technologies, self-cleaning surfaces, and even complete overhauls of building layouts have been featured in the conversation. Some argue that certain changes will be adopted for the long-term, while others are hopeful that short-term inconveniences won’t become permanent. It may be too soon to tell.
What we have found, though, is that the financial and human cost of putting some of these proposed solutions in place has been largely absent from the conversation.
The Cost of the Closedown & Its Aftermath
Every business, from airlines, to restaurants, to retailers, to professional service providers, has devised a business model to achieve profitability. This profitability hinges on selling to a certain number of consumers, and businesses design buildings that will allow them to efficiently serve their desired markets. If these buildings continually fall short and don’t operate at the capacity at which they were intended to perform, then business is less profitable, and companies are vulnerable to failure.
Take the Lancaster Parking Authority as one example. This month, LNP reported that, according to Executive Director Larry Cohen, the authority brought in only $30,000 of gross revenue in April, just 5% of the $620,000 it budgeted for the month. He went on to stress that the Parking Authority functions “like any other small business.” “We do need revenue to sustain ourselves,” he said. Other public amenities, like mass transit systems, also rely on density to remain viable.
To combat such devastating potential losses, experts and business leaders around the world are proposing creative solutions. For instance, global commercial real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield has developed its buzzworthy “6 Feet Office”. While this conceptual idea has been celebrated as an actionable plan for getting workers back to the office, it may not serve businesses as well as intended. Maintaining such distance between employees is often impossible in a large number of work environments. Certain companies operate with hundreds of people in a space and rely on this human capacity to meet sales goals, manufacture products, and maintain profitability. Not to mention, adding the technology, safety barriers, and cleaning solutions necessary to create safer working environments will come at huge costs, and many business owners will be unable to afford the proposed changes.
Human Connectivity At-Risk
In addition to the financial strain of adapting to the “new normal”, there has been a very real and devastating impact on human connectedness. A pervasive fear of population density has spread throughout the world, despite evidence of more populous cities like Hong Kong more effectively containing local COVID-19 transmission than relatively sparser cities like New Orleans. This fear has the potential to alter the landscape of our cities, encouraging a third of Americans to consider moving to less densely populated areas, while sapping the life from the parks, markets, and other public places where we used to gather together.
Such a knee-jerk reaction fails to acknowledge that achieving physical and emotional closeness to others is one of our most essential human needs. To mitigate the widespread fear of density, we as designers must find new ways to make people comfortable gathering in one place; we must assure them that a dense urban area with well-designed and carefully utilized public space can be equally as safe as a sprawling suburban neighborhood. Just as the 1918 flu pandemic transformed home bathrooms, COVID-19 will inspire creative changes that serve our needs, save our cities, and protect the health of our communities.
Through all of the noise of COVID-19 mitigation and post-pandemic planning, we must remain realistic when considering the future. When crisis strikes, it’s easy to grasp at quick solutions because they appear to lessen the burden. But, as our financial and social futures hang in the balance, it’s imperative that we collectively consider the real impacts of every proposal and determine its viability, so that any innovation we make can effectively serve the interests of the population it was designed to aid.