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Designing cities after COVID-19

Designing cities after COVID-19

Learning from Coronavirus and planning for the future 

Space Syntax Lab researchers with funding from Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) are looking at our spatial environments, and how, in times of COVID-19, they affect the way we either remain connected—or stay apart.

The world has relied on virtual interaction during the COVID-19 pandemic, but how does the balance of face-to-face and virtual contact affect our social networks and creativity, and does city design have an impact?

Led by Professor Alan Penn, The Space Syntax Lab at The Bartlett, University College London (UCL), has been developing a framework to explain the way that the spatial environments we design – buildings and cities – affect the way that human social groups are brought into contact or kept apart, and how they communicate and transact.  

“We are living through a social experiment on a global scale,” says Professor Penn, “but what happens when whole countries and continents shut down public life and ask people to stay at home? This question, and our personal experience of living through lockdown, illustrate some fundamental aspects of the way that human society works.”  

“Put simply, human groups cohere in two distinct ways – we develop social networks through face-to-face contact in space, and we maintain networks over time and across space through media – 'where you are’ and ‘who you are’.” 

The effect of Coronavirus on spatial connection

Space Syntax analysis of spatial environments – along with studies of buildings and places – has been used to help design buildings, urban neighbourhoods and whole cities to function well socially and economically. 

But over the first few months of the pandemic, the ‘spatial' and ‘transpatial' networks of society have shifted into different forms all over the world. 

On top of that, social distancing has radically reduced the contacts we make in real space while internet technologies have helped us maintain transpatial social ties. 

Rethinking how we do things

So what do we do? Professor Penn and his research team are studying just that. “As we start to plan for living with COVID, the way that we design our buildings and plan our cities must be rethought.”

“To control disease transmission we may need to segregate areas of our cities from one another – and walk or cycle within smaller neighbourhoods instead of mass transit at a larger scale.”  

“We must restart the economy but without the face-to-face interaction on which it has always relied.”  

Technology plays a vital role, yet while software applications support remote working and allow routine transactional meetings, they lack the serendipity of real space that supports creative innovation.  

Zoom parties, for example, allow you to keep in touch with long-term friends, but they offer little opportunity to make new friends. 

For Professor Penn, it’s now about developing a built environment solution that can thrive after the pandemic. “Both serendipity and innovation depend more on the ‘where you are’ than the ‘who you are’, and this means that the design of the built environment is likely to play a central role in creating a new post-pandemic economy.”