How can COVID-19 help to create a better tomorrow?

It is not a new notion that the built environment affects our mental health and wellbeing. We instinctively feel that an alley with trees, benches and cafes is a better place compared to a noisy street full of cars and with polluted air. This is how we choose our holiday destinations. This is where we want to rest.

For the first time in history, this feeling is based not only on qualitative research and designers' "gut feelings" but is also supported by immense volumes of quantitative data collected and shared around the world*. This data provides a formula for places that are good for homo sapiens. The fact that a human-centric built environment is better for people's health is now scientifically proven. It is therefore not a surprise that place making, that was in the past a domain of grass roots urbanism organisations, is now an important part of strategic ideas and policy documents like the governmental “Place Principle”, Designing Streets, Town Centre Toolkit or the Place Standard Tool which was cocreated with the NHS.

When it comes to the built environment it takes years between the moment an idea is described in a national policy and the moment it becomes an industry standard. This is where COVID-19 might paradoxically become an ally in accelerating the change to a better, healthier built environment.

We react to COVID-19 in many different ways. Many of these reactions are driven by physical health threats, but also by the anxieties and fears that they cause. Amongst all different reactions, there are some common denominators that keep reoccurring. We started to value parks and green open spaces much more - especially the ones within walking distance to our homes. Walking itself has changed! We prefer wide pavements or carriageways adapted for pedestrians or cyclists. Yes, there are fewer cars! We also avoid public transport. The air is cleaner, there is less noise pollution. In this setting we are happier and more comfortable to walk or cycle to our local shop, cafe or park. And the reason to do so is not just to buy something. This is how me meet friends and neighbours now. Some of those neighbours we're meeting for the first time in our lives. This is our social life, which is so vital for our wellbeing. Over the last few months, the few tables in front of your local pub suddenly became the most prized spot on the street. Our lives became much more local: we are closely attached to our local centres, local economies and communities.

All of the above is driven by the iron rules of COVID-19 transmission. In order to avoid infections, contain the virus, stay healthy and minimise the number of deaths, we have to change our economy and the way we work and live. That means changing the way we think about and design the built environment that is the stage for those activities. Effortlessly, almost as a by-product, the new normal built environment supports well-being and good mental health.

The way we work has also changed. Working from home has become much more common. Suddenly the additional 2m2 of well-lit and well-ventilated space needed to comfortably locate a desk became critical for the standard home design. Setting up a workstation on a kitchen table every morning can be challenging. It's also a potential mine field when it comes to interactions with people we share the flat with. For similar reasons, acoustic separation became more important. Everyone who has a furloughed neighbour who likes to play music just a bit too loud during working hours would understand. Since contact with nature is so important to our mental health, access to an outdoor space like a balcony or a garden can also hugely impact the experience of self isolation or lockdown. For some, it can be a nightmare; for others, it might feel almost like holidays. These are just a few examples showing how the design of the dwellings we live in, and now also work in, has an immense impact on minimal comfort and wellbeing during the pandemic.

Everyone working in Scotland with Domestic Technical Standards will be familiar with Section 7 on Sustainability. At this point achieving bronze level is obligatory. The silver and gold levels describe what used to be considered a higher quality design. In fact, the spatial, acoustic, and natural light requirements of the silver and gold levels describe a level which is essential to comfortably live in a world affected by COVID-19.

The above considerations barely scratch the surface of how the pandemic is changing the world we live in. Energy efficiency and resilience, commuting and transport, food production, office design, childcare, family celebrations; even eating out and dating are changing at a high pace. In each case the change and adjustment should lead to better, more resilient, healthier, more people-orientated and environmentally friendly design solutions. The bright ideas and great policies previously considered as a nice-to-have now need to become the new normal.

The demand for this shift is expected from local authorities, the private sector and the public. The benefits of this shift can now be easily explained with numbers representing savings and demand-driven profits. This could be anything between avoiding NHS costs for treatments for obesity or depression to higher value of properties in walkable communities.

I recently attended a very interesting talk about bouncing back to a better world after COVID-19 which was hosted by Causeway**. One of the most important messages from that talk was the idea that crises, even if they are scary and often very destructive, are also great opportunities. Difficult and unusual circumstances force us to switch off the "autopilot" we tend to live and work on. They force us to re-imagine and re-invent our everyday activities and implement the change right away. Let's seize this moment. As a profession, as professionals and as individuals. Let's think in gold standard.

*https://www.wri.org/ , https://www.pps.org/
** https://www.causewayexchange.net/
*** The illustration by Smith Scott Mullan Associates comes from a blog by Alistair Scott, a board member of A&DS https://www.ads.org.uk/covid_recovery_blog_alistairscott/

Jarek Gasiorek, Senior Architect at Smith Scott Mullan Associates in Edinburgh.

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