Social distancing and the design of public places

It is hard to deny that COVID-19 has caused all of us to rethink how we live together in our cities, neighbourhoods and towns. Familiar public spaces have been hijacked by bunting and hazard warnings, traffic cones and various crosses and lines marked out in a myriad of coloured tapes.

Forget the old units of measurement, the golden ratio, Vitruvius or Le Corbusier’s Modulor Man; 1.5 metres has become the most powerful unit of measure in society today.

Using this new universal scale, we have created a series of illustrations that use paving patterns, plants and people to explore how the future design of our public spaces might need to respond. This speculation aims to start a conversation about how we will need to design for human safety in a future-COVID world.

Recent Tactical Urbanism projects in New Zealand and Bogota have seen on-street parking replaced with kilometres of cycle lanes. While in Chicago, streets across the city have been closed to traffic to give people more space in which to exercise safely. The usual concerns about adequate car parking provision swept away to meet the new imperatives of social distancing and provision of more space.

While the illustrations show specific paving and landscape treatments using a 1.5 metre matrix, the designs create a spatial generosity. Each design demonstrates the importance of providing defined and shared spaces for people, reinforcing the idea that well-designed public space can allow us to be together.

Places like Unter de Linden in Berlin, Las Rambles in Barcelona and Haussman’s Champs Elysees do not need tactical urbanism to accommodate COVID-19’s social distancing. The spacious urban design of these streets has an inbuilt future-proofing which allows them to be responsive and resilient.

Just as London’s cholera epidemic of 1831 led Joseph Bazalgette to engineer the grand urban embankments of the River Thames, the future urban design of our cities as a result of this pandemic will benefit us in ways we have not yet imagined.