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COVID-19: The Wheel of Change?


Since the outbreak of COVID-19 began early this year, we, as landscape architects and planners, have been asked by friends and colleagues about our observations of the effects on the built environment and how we see the field of design changing long-term.

By simple observation, we believe you can see the wheels of change happening right in front of us. Each day I go to my new home office with a window that overlooks the front yard and street. Over the last few months of remote working, it’s been amazing to see new neighbors and friends that, before COVID-19, we would only see for a passing moment. Now people explore the neighborhood, strolling up and down streets, stopping to talk to neighbors in their yards and driveways. Generally speaking, it seems like people in my neighborhood are beginning to appreciate the ability to slow down and stroll through the community, which rarely happened before.

In attempting to predict future outcomes of the current pandemic, there are always lessons to be learned if we look at our past. In researching the Cholera pandemic of the 1800s, which swept the United States in two waves – one in 1832 and one in 1849 – we saw several innovations in design and planning of American cities directly related to the pandemic. American cities implemented their first underground sewer systems and the city street grid – and they began to understand the importance of community and city parks. Noted Father of Landscape Architecture Frederick Law Olmsted, who lost a child to Cholera, wrote about public health and its intersectionality with parks and open space.

Like the Cholera pandemics of the 1800s, we believe the current COVID-19 pandemic will also have long-term design implications that we are in the process of uncovering. In thinking about the changes I’ve observed in my own neighborhood over the last few months, I was interested in talking to a few of our community developer clients to see what they’re observing and if they also see these changes impacting development for the long-term.

Last month, we sent a digital survey to a wide-ranging group of master planned community developer clients and based on results of this survey, several early community design impacts appear to be surfacing because of the current pandemic. A few of these impacts include:

    _ Increased funding for open space over funding for buildings and conditioned spaces. We hope this means that people will have a better appreciation for the outdoors, with more awareness of the beauty of nature and an enhanced desire to protect it.
    _ Respondents felt like bike lanes could potentially be added in new communities to provide more healthy, connected, and walkable communities. This made us wonder: if people are walking more, could this slowly lead to more walkable land uses and not a car-dominant society?
    _ Front porch living is another area of interest noted in the survey. Approximately 50% of our survey respondents noted the need to provide additional options and enhanced design for outdoor living and we consistently heard from respondents that the backyard will be the family oasis.
    _ We expect to see a redesign of the home interior to have better indoor and outdoor fluidity. If a better design solution can be found, one could argue that great indoor/outdoor spaces can help reduce the conditioned square footage of a home and reduce its initial/maintenance cost while improving affordability.

Changes in design are not limited to master planned communities, though. We are also seeing changes in the healthcare industry, similar to the effects that 9/11 had on air travel. Right now, emphasis is being placed on creating more physical separation in the short-term as our hospital systems continue to operate, but we think these changes could become long-term. A few of these changes could include:

    _ A decentralization of the waiting area – many healthcare facilities have adopted this to operate now more safely, but we think it could be here to stay. In the future, people will check-in with their phone in their car or at a few select mobile locations outside of the hospital. Once you have registered and been cleared, you will then be directed to your room. No more waiting rooms and paper.
    _ At the same time, the outdoor experience of these healthcare facilities is changing to be more geared toward family groups or individuals to have more space to be reflective or engaged with nature.

While no one has a crystal ball, one thing is for certain – COVID-19 will impact the planning and design of the built environment – and landscape architects will play an important role in the shaping of the future of these spaces. Click through the carousel below to walk through the results of the survey.

This post was co-written by Mark Meyer and Robert Acuña-Pilgrim. They are both principals, planners and professional landscape architects in our Dallas office. Do you have ideas of how the built environment will be affected? We’d love to continue the conversation. You can reach out to Mark here or Robert here.