How will public spaces change as result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

How will public spaces change as result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Pandemics and other catastrophes have changed our physical spaces throughout history. Public spaces have seen changes in the last few months as a result of COVID-19, but those changes may not be long-lasting, says Illinois architecture professor Benjamin Bross, who studies urban design and history. Credit: L. Brian Stauffer

Restaurants, hair salons and retail businesses are reopening throughout the country—many under safety guidelines that call for outdoor seating at restaurants, social distancing, partitions between customers or between customers and cashiers, mandatory masks and frequent sanitizing. A licensed architect who specialized in commercial and retail projects in his 20 years of practice, Illinois architecture professor Benjamin Bross focuses on urban design and history. He spoke with News Bureau arts and humanities editor Jodi Heckel about the changes in social spaces brought about by pandemics and other catastrophes.

As a historian, what can you say about the sorts of changes in physical spaces that have been made in the past as a result of pandemics or other types of catastrophes?

As a historian focused on spatial production—that is, not just the actual physical object but also the social, cultural, political and economic value systems that are present—I see that catastrophes have a long history of prompting spatial changes. On the grandest of scales, there is evidence that the Antonine Plague, A.D. 165-180, was one of the factors that began the decline of the Roman Empire and the emergence of local and spatial typologies.

On a smaller scale was the catastrophic 1942 fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston. At the time, the fire code permitted establishments to have revolving doors, which jammed as people desperately tried to exit Cocoanut Grove, resulting in 490 deaths and 166 people injured. From then on, emergency exit doors had to open onto the street and remain unlocked from the inside.

Pandemics help explain many historic sociopolitical changes when seen in context. The Great Pestilence in Asia, known later in Europe as the Black Death, caused a tremendous loss of urban and rural populations, changing feudal practices and empowering serfs and peasants. The has never been eradicated, but consequent flare-ups have been controlled by early detection, spatial strategies and today, modern medical treatment. For example, the Venetian-controlled town of Ragusa, now Dubrovnik, established that all those entering the city had to first spend a quarantino (40-day period) in isolation. From this 1377 law, we get today's use of "quarantine," or to spatially separate. Eventually, as medical and hygiene knowledge improved, it catalyzed spatial changes—for example, hospitals now isolate highly contagious patients as well as the highly vulnerable, thus having an impact on their spatial planning.

Do you expect to see long-term changes in the design of commercial or retail spaces (e.g., restaurants, retail stores, offices) as result of the pandemic?

There will be a few changes as a result of the present pandemic, not all of which will be physically obvious. In general, brick-and-mortar businesses were already experiencing a great amount of pressure from internet commerce. The current trend of these physical spaces closing will only be exacerbated. Before the current pandemic, countries with vigorous internet connectivity and e-commerce-friendly banking practices were already witnessing closures. Ironically, one of the factors that made some brick-and-mortar spaces competitive, i.e., dense urban locations, may now be their undoing, as people will stay away to avoid other people.

Other changes that we have begun to see are at point-of-sales, or a cashier or salesperson's personal interaction space. Stores have begun to erect bank tellerlike transparent (usually plastic) shields to prevent the transmission of airborne pathogens. At the same time, the U.S. and other markets were already converting to customer DIY checkouts. Another example is the adoption of door-mounted thermo-scanners that will monitor for higher-than-average body temperatures.

What are the barriers to such changes?

There are economic barriers. It will cost money to change HVAC systems or install thermal detectors. Health code enforcement must be paid by either the consumer or the provider via taxes or fees. This gives yet another advantage to large-scale commercial and retail companies that can absorb the cost because of volume or operations efficiencies or because they are internet-based, placing smaller brick-and-mortar stores at a disadvantage.

There are social barriers that may prove to be impossible to overcome. Can we really envision a world where Europeans stop sitting in crowded cafés? Ultimately, the evidence is that neither the Black Death nor the repeated influenza or H1N1 pandemics have changed much in the way in which we socialize in spaces. If the restaurants Sobrino de Botín in Madrid (est. 1725), Wiltons in London (est. 1742) and Fraunces Tavern in New York City (est. 1762) have continued to operate through catastrophes and pandemics, in more or less the same way for more than 250 years, it seems unlikely that spaces will change much as a result of COVID-19.

What are the sorts of process-oriented changes we might see, rather than physical changes in spaces?

It is likely that we will see a few changes in processes of two kinds: inventory-based and human activity control. In the case of inventory, for example, food-borne infectious outbreaks have led the Food and Drug Administration, and similar local authorities, to institute control procedures so that food is monitored and quality is assured. We will probably see COVID-19-related supervision processes that may or may not last, as new research reveals whether the pathogen can live on surfaces, and if so, for how long.

In the case of human activity control, we will see, in the short term, current practices continue—six-foot distancing, facial covering and repeated hand-washing, as well as point-of-entry monitoring such as thermal scanning. In the long term, these processes face an uphill battle, as many societies are generally distrustful of people wearing facial coverings. As for entry-point monitoring, in the short term certain supervisory agencies have absorbed the monitoring cost, but eventually there will be a question as to who pays for these services, and whether they are legal outside of a national health emergency.

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