How can we make our public places more accessible to more people, while keeping them safe post-lockdown?
As the sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote in his book Palaces for the People, ‘Social infrastructure is crucially important, because local, face-to-face interactions are the building blocks of all public life’. In a world where we have had to drastically limit those face-to-face interactions, the consequences for our communities, from villages to cities, have been profound. The Office for National Statistics recorded significant levels of ‘lockdown loneliness’ with almost a third of adults feeling lonely as a result of Covid-19 restrictions. For 16-24 year olds, rates of loneliness increased from 13% to more than half.
The causes of this decline in our collective wellbeing and mental health are complex, but the role of social infrastructure, in providing the spaces that help us to form the social bonds we need, should not be overlooked. Social infrastructure can be broadly defined – from schools to hair salons – but it is fundamentally any public place that provides a space for communities to come together. The social recovery from the coronavirus depends on their reopening.
Over the past three months, as part of a project funded by Innovate UK, IF_DO has developed a series of Covid-19 Safer Spaces design guides, specifically to help public places such as libraries, churches, community centres and youth clubs to reopen safely. Some of the spaces that have been addressed, including streets, markets, and food banks, have never closed, but have had to adapt significantly to allow for social distancing. The long term impact of Covid-19 will affect them all, and while this has been a time of crisis, it also presents opportunities to rethink the design of social infrastructure, moving from the initial reaction to the pandemic, to a point of recovery and resilience.
When the national lockdown was announced, social infrastructure responded accordingly. Operators reacted in a combination of four ways: closing doors, shifting online, home delivery, and spatial adaptations. Cafes and coffee shops closed completely (many never to reopen), libraries and community centres saw a boom in online services, while organisations such as the Trussell Trust shifted to an entirely delivery-based model. In those places that remained open, people became aware of the personal space around them, and therefore the spaces around them, in a whole new way. Design decisions that were previously unseen, such as the width of pavements, suddenly became highly visible as our urban realm was rapidly reconfigured.
The immediate response to the pandemic radically shifted the window of what is considered possible, as we saw our towns, cities and public services in whole new ways. Streets were reclaimed by children, pollution levels declined, and many services were made more accessible by recreating them online. Many of these changes created new opportunities for how to operate in the future, yet on their own, without the social element of being able to physically come together, they fell short. Solely online events become wearing, and delivery services are transactional compared to being able to sit down and have a conversation with another human being.
The route to recovery begins by bringing people back in. This will inevitably need to be cautious and incremental, with measures taken to mitigate the risk of transmission. The adaptations developed for the Safer Spaces design guides were based on three fundamental considerations: space, surfaces, and ventilation. Providing space to allow appropriate distance between people, with simple interventions such as one-way systems, mirrors on blind corners to give additional visibility, or screens where distancing is not possible; limiting shared surfaces and high-touch points, including the quarantining of returned books in libraries and shared equipment in youth clubs; and improving ventilation by opening doors and windows, and checking and replacing filters on HVAC systems where necessary.
Such mitigation measures play an essential role not just in reducing the potential spread of infection, but also in giving confidence to members of staff and the public in their use of those spaces. As they are implemented, however, it is important that they do not become defensive or a psychological barrier to entry. Public places need to be accessible to everyone, and ensuring that they remain welcoming to all is crucial.
One means of addressing this is to consider an expansion of places like libraries and community centres beyond their walls. This ‘unfolding’ would include the offering of group activities, such as children’s rhyme time or reading groups, in local parks – an environment that further reduces the risk of infection, and brings additional physical and mental health benefits.
The changes seen in our public realm over lockdown provided a tantalising experience of what could be. If those changes can be embedded and developed further – slowing down traffic, prioritising places over movement, designing for children – we have the opportunity not only to support communities in adapting to life post Covid-19, but also to transform climate and health resilience for the future. Walkable streets create places where people connect and spend time, they help local businesses to thrive, support play and physical activity, and create more sustainable neighbourhoods – both socially and environmentally.
For building-based social infrastructure, the path to resilience is similarly one that will help to promote individual wellbeing and environmental sustainability. Increased focus on ventilation is likely to lead to a demand for larger covered external spaces, as well a phasing-out of recirculated-air systems internally. Demand for Passivhaus and heat recovery ventilation, with their demonstrated air quality benefits, will probably increase in the commissioning of libraries and similar public buildings. A greater need for flexibility, and the ability to adapt to future distancing requirements, will further promote a ‘loose-fit’ model, enabling easier and materially lighter adaptations in the future.
The consequences of Covid-19 for social infrastructure has been profound. The closure of places like churches, youth clubs and leisure centres has had significant detrimental impacts on communities, and yet the adaptations that emerged out of necessity have revealed significant opportunities to create both healthier and more sustainable places. As we emerge into a new normal, where we have to learn to live with the virus, it is clear that social infrastructure, in bringing people together and strengthening community relations, is going to be even more important. Effective social infrastructure will not only to help repair the social and economic damage wrought by the pandemic, but will help make communities more resilient to the social, economic and environmental challenges of tomorrow.
IF_DO’s Safer Spaces design guides can be downloaded from the Covid-19 Safer Spaces website, including:
Safer Churches, developed in partnership with the Church of England
Safer Community Centres, developed in partnership with ACRE and Clarion Futures
Safer Food Banks, developed in partnership with the Trussell Trust
Safer Libraries, developed in partnership with Libraries Connected and CILIP
Safer Markets, developed in partnership with the National Association of British Markets
Safer Streets, developed in partnership with Street Space
Safer Youth Clubs, developed in partnership with UK Youth
Thomas Bryans is director and co-founder of IF_DO