Throughout history, disease outbreaks have forced new innovations in urban design: Fighting cholera epidemics in the 1800s, for example, necessitated the building of new plumbing and sewer systems and the devising of new zoning laws to prevent overcrowding. As the new coronavirus lays bare the need for broader changes across our economy, such as widespread paid sick leave, it might fundamentally change the way cities and buildings are built.
According to David Greens, a principal at the health-focused design firm Perkins and Will, one part of that might mean creating buildings that can quickly switch to a different use in the case of an epidemic or another type of disaster. That could mean “redesigning public spaces so that they can also work as logistics and treatment areas in cities.”
The better design could also help reduce crowds where viruses can easily spread. At airports, for example, security screening could be done differently so that passengers aren’t forced to wait together in crowded lines. “New and upgraded airports are being designed to increase security screening lanes and reduce pinch points in passenger flow,” says Arathi Gowda, associate director of high-performance design at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). “This, along with automated screening lanes, reduces passenger wait time, congestion, and person-to-person contact.”
Hospitals, of course, can also be better designed to handle outbreaks of infectious diseases. The hospital at Rush University in Chicago has an ambulance bay that is designed to be closed off so that patients can be safely evaluated there before entering the hospital. Inside, negative pressure zones that limit the spread of the virus can be turned on in multiple areas. Hospital rooms can also transform. For instance, if a patient becomes very sick, it could be turned from an acute care room into a critical care ICU room.
More holistic approaches to making cities and buildings healthy can also impact future epidemics by making it less likely that people get sick. As one example, SOM is beginning to add more outdoor space to its designs, even in super-tall buildings. One reason that access to outdoor space is important: A large percentage of Americans are vitamin D deficient, and some studies have linked higher vitamin D levels to a reduced risk of acute respiratory tract infection.
Want to take a deeper dive into post-corona urban design? Have a look right here.