Architects and urban planners from Gensler, Harvard, and Bloomberg Associates explain the changes coming to our shared spaces.
For Fast Company’s Shape of Tomorrow series, we’re asking business leaders to share their inside perspective on how the COVID-19 era is transforming their industries. Here’s what’s been lost—and what could be gained—in the new world order.
This pandemic is challenging us, but it also offers a once-in-a-century chance to change course and undo some of the damage from the traffic and congestion and pollution. I work with mayors around the world to improve the quality of life in their cities, and transportation is at the heart of what we’re doing in response to the COVID crisis. Just 10 years ago, when I was transportation commissioner of NYC, closing car traffic through Times Square for pedestrians was on the front page of newspapers for weeks. Now cities around the world are turning to car-free streets as part of the recovery. Not because it’s fun or because of any political agenda, but it’s because streets that are accessible are better for business and better to live in. And the same things that make biking and walking attractive in a pandemic—that they’re resilient and reliable and affordable and you can be socially distanced—were true before the pandemic. The pandemic can give cities a head start on a new road order.
Milan has announced a 42-kilometer (26-mile) plan to take two lanes of the street and turn them into extended sidewalks and bike lanes. [Paris] Mayor Anne Hidalgo set up a 450-kilometer (about 280-mile) bike lane network and closed the Rue de Rivoli and turned it into a car-free zone. London is moving forward under Mayor Sadiq Khan to widen sidewalks rapidly. Bogota is doubling down on its [bike lane] program. Some 50 American cities have created hundreds of miles of flexible streets that are open for walking and biking. So I think we’re seeing that our streets are really a lifeline, and not just a way to get cars from point A to point B.
WE’VE HAD A CAR-CENTRIC ORIENTATION FOR GENERATIONS NOW, AND IT ACTUALLY DOESN’T WORK”
BLOOMBERG ASSOCIATES’ JANETTE SADIK-KHAN
With all the traffic gone, you can see all the possibilities hidden in plain sight: extended sidewalks, bike and bus lanes, and public spaces. We’ve had a car-centric orientation for generations now, and it actually doesn’t work. There’s never going to be enough money, enough parking, enough concrete, asphalt, and steel. There’s just not enough city for everyone to drive. A lot of the original sin in cities is that we don’t use the space that we have efficiently. On many streets in New York City, 90% of the traffic is pedestrian, but they only get 10% of the street space. We can redesign our streets so there’s more room for people to walk in, more room for people to bike, and dedicated bus lanes. We can do this, and we can bring new life to city streets while keeping traffic and jobs and the economy moving.
The most sustainable cities aren’t going to be the ones that have the smartest tech, or roads made of plastic instead of asphalt. They’re going to be the ones where you don’t need a car in the first place. When you solve for active transportation like biking and walking, you solve for other things like local economies and closer communities and public safety.
Kimberly Dowdell, principal at HOK, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects
Part of the reason why the coronavirus has had such a tremendous impact on some of the more dense places, like New York City, isn’t just density. The issue is more about overcrowding, and that’s got more to do with economics than design. You could have an apartment that’s really intended for one or two people, but because of economic conditions, three or four people are living there, and that creates an environment that facilitates the disease at a higher rate. Those are some of the things we need to be mindful of when we think about policy design going forward: How do we create greater opportunity for people to live in less overcrowded conditions? Places like Hong Kong are very dense, but they’re not having the same kinds of outcomes that we’re seeing in the U.S.
HOW DO WE CREATE GREATER OPPORTUNITY FOR PEOPLE TO LIVE IN LESS OVERCROWDED CONDITIONS?”
HOK’S KIMBERLY DOWDELL
To some extent, we need to zoom out and look at policy relative to zoning and policies that impact financial outcomes. When we have a policy environment that enables developers to make a profit on more spacious and equitable places, then that’s when we can have a more robust conversation about specific design solutions.
I would also encourage my brothers and sisters in architecture to think outside of that, to look at serving on the planning commission, maybe even running for office, being a planning director, [being] part of the solution to increasing equity in our communities, which really happens at the table where policy is made. Ultimately developers have to do what the policies require them to do in order for them to get entitlement to property, to get public subsidy, to actually make a deal work. That’s where architects can have more influence.
Somehow within a 90-day period, we’ve experienced as a nation a recap of the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights Movement in a very tiny period of time. There’s a wealth gap in America where white people have 10 times the net worth of Black Americans. Right now, we have roughly 300 million people living in U.S. cities, but by 2050 that number is anticipated to be 400 million. So we’re going to see a ton more density, and architects have a major role to play in how that all gets worked out and designed. By 2045 the majority of people in the United States are anticipated to be people of color. That 51% will be mostly Latinx, and then behind that African American, Asian, and others. We’re going to be in a space with a lot more people, in the same cities, and be far more diverse than even we’re seeing now. We, as a society, have a responsibility to solve some of the racial tensions that have been a part of our makeup for over 400 years, so that we can actually have a more peaceful and harmonious situation.
Rachel Gutter, president of International WELL Building Institute
There is no way to design your way out of COVID-19. You can have all the best practices at play in a building, all the best policies in your organization, and the second that somebody walks in who’s infected and coughs or sneezes, a lot of those things really don’t help, if you’re standing within range. We have to acknowledge that a big part of where we need to be focusing our attention right now is making our best determinations about when it is safe to invite people back into our spaces.
I see [experts] making projections about these massive changes to working environments and other places that I think are overstated. When the threat of COVID has been eliminated, we should be really careful about promoting de-densification [of cities]. It would be catastrophic socially, financially, and from a climate perspective—which COVID-19 teaches us is inextricable from our health.
Using hand sanitizer and things like that, they’re absolutely the appropriate right now, but they’re not strategies that we recommend in perpetuity. I also see a risk when property management firms, designers, architects are telling people, “The six-foot office is here to stay, we’ll never have open office plans again.” I patently disagree. China already shows us that when the threat is reduced, life is largely going to go back to normal, which is probably not a bad thing. Long-term strategies are enhanced cleaning protocol, touch-free experiences, particularly in bathrooms. We absolutely should have improved ventilation in most of our buildings, and yet if we ventilated with the expectation that we would eliminate all instances of COVID-19, the energy footprint of our buildings would be astronomical. So we have to balance considerations of health with long-term considerations for the planet.
The single most important thing that any employer can do is have a policy that encourages people to stay home when they’re sick, and a culture to support it.
Joseph Allen, assistant professor at T. H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard, coauthor of Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity
For the first time in history, everyone around the world is recognizing how the indoor environment influences our health. Right now, the focus will be on infectious disease, as it should be. But I think it will morph into a conversation about “what else is happening in this building?” And “how does this building promote my health, the acoustics, the lighting, the chemicals in the furniture I’m sitting on?”
WE’VE BEEN IN A ‘SICK BUILDING’ ERA SINCE OUR DECISIONS AROUND VENTILATION IN THE ’70S IN RESPONSE TO THE ENERGY CRISIS. ”
HARVARD’S JOSEPH ALLEN
We’ve been in a “sick building” era since our decisions around ventilation in the ’70s in response to the energy crisis, where we started to tighten up our building envelopes and choke off the air supply. We need to increase the amount of air that’s coming in to dilute airborne contaminants. Schools are chronically under-ventilated. Most buildings are meeting this bare minimum ventilation standard. That needs to change.
We know that higher ventilation rates are associated with lower infectious disease transmission, better cognitive performance, less worker absenteeism. So the value proposition is already there. Right now, building decisions are largely on the facility side, and their mandate is around energy, not necessarily health and performance of the workers. A CEO might take a very different view of this because across the enterprise, they see these benefits.
One in three [COVID-19-related] deaths in the U.S. is associated with people at a senior home. Nine of the top 10 biggest clusters are in meatpacking plants or prisons. People in lower-income communities are 10 times more likely to have COVID. We have to start to use this new data to be more targeted and supportive of the places and people who are hardest hit. We have to start providing this precision support. We have a responsibility to help those who are most vulnerable. At the same time, it helps the entire population, because you start to tamp down on these events or locations that can lead to more outbreaks.
Andy Cohen, co-CEO of Gensler
We’re working on a lot of offices right now. We have 10,000 clients around the world, and they’re all coming to us saying, “What does Day One look like in the office?” We’ve got guidelines that talk about what you can do to morph your space.
One major change is to use technology to make a touchless, frictionless environment. [In addition to] decals on the floor and separation of seating, partitions between desks, we’re talking about biometric scanning, facial recognition, so you don’t have to touch something to get in or out. It recognizes who you are, and [then] you can utilize a space. We’re talking about voice recognition in spaces, so that when you get on an elevator, you just say, “I’m going to 412” and don’t have to press a button. We’re talking about gesture technology, like what you see in bathrooms with soap dispensers, so you can move your hands and not have to touch doors to open things.
We’re [also] talking a lot about air filtration and using outside air, making sure our buildings are healthy. We’re talking about screenings in lobbies. When you enter a space there’s going to be a centralized screening or monitoring area. We’re talking about significant cleaning protocols in spaces and using materials that are easily cleanable. Technology, health and wellness, and ventilation are the three key areas that are coming up over and over and over again.
Thomas Woltz, owner, Nelson Byrd Woltz landscape architects
Before the pandemic, I was on the road around half the year, going to construction sites, meetings, lectures, all of that travel. Now those hours are productive design hours: I’m drawing more than I have in years, in one-on-one dialogue with my staff and my clients. Anyone can reach me anytime. It’s been a real delight that I’m actually providing more, better service, even though it’s remote.
The events of two months shake you up, but it doesn’t put a stop to something that was meant to be a long-term project, and to last for 100 or 200 years. We are being responsive to the concerns amongst our clients right now, looking at amphitheaters, gathering spaces, terraces like outdoor cafes, that sort of thing. We’re modeling their capacity with or without social distancing, making spaces that can accommodate the insertion of benches, chairs, tables, and more flexible elements to contract or swell depending on what’s going on. We’re looking at creating spaces that will have durability for the next 100 years.
THERE’S SOMETHING HEALTHY THAT HAPPENS TO A COMMUNITY WHEN WE WORK TOGETHER IN THE CIVIC REALM. WE NEED THESE PUBLIC SPACES.”
THOMAS WOLTZ, OWNER, NELSON BYRD WOLTZ
I do worry about the smaller nonprofits, run by incredibly bright and passionate people, educational farms and historical landscapes, that depend on donors. They don’t have civic dollars or tax dollars like parks in cities, but they’re so important culturally. And more broadly, I worry about losing the gains we’ve had in the past few decades in greater density and the sense of community that I’ve seen growing in cities that we work in. I worry that we will lose those gains in sustainability by living in a more sprawling manner, avoiding public transit, avoiding gathering. There’s something healthy that happens to a community when we work together in the civic realm. We need these public spaces, and we need them to be safe and beautiful and free to all people.