As this country, probably in foolish haste, starts to reopen, the call for plans and solutions grows. How can we prevent as many deaths as possible? How can we prevent widespread poverty, hunger, and destitution as a result of the unraveling of an economy that has had every cushion or reserve engineered out of it? What can we do about the social, sexual, and racial injustices the COVID-19 crisis has both revealed and exasperated? How can we design a safer, healthier, and more just world?
These are questions for designers as much as they are for economists, politicians, and scientists. We need long-term planning and vision, not quick fixes that will make things worse in the long run. The CDC, for example, has called for commuting to resume via single-occupancy vehicles and for work spaces to offer only single-serving food—both of which seem logical from an immediate health-engineering viewpoint but are obviously wrong from a long-term environmental perspective. Similarly, the solution to the social unrest now sweeping across the country is not more police or vicious dogs, nor the President lurking in an underground bunker, but a response to the fundamental racism and injustice built into our urban fabric.
What is to be done?
Designers should mobilize, I believe, to respond to these issues. At the most immediate level, we need to figure out how to develop materials and forms that are safer for common use, that don’t require the endless application of disinfectant, and that aren’t manufactured using petroleum-based or metal products. If that’s impossible in practice, then we need to design objects, from operating buttons to tabletops, that can withstand social use with limited cross-infection. Gesture-based controls might be one high-tech solution, but if gas stations and fast food restaurants can kluge together plastic guards, can’t designers do something better?
We need a post-air conditioning world: well-ventilated and open spaces that replace the hermetically sealed environments in which so many of us work, live, and play. The spaces we occupy together need to be designed so we can do exactly that—be together—while minimizing disease transmission. We realize now more than ever that offices, restaurant, public spaces, and cultural and sport venues are, above all else, social spaces that define us through our collective actions, interactions, and affinities. We cannot redesign them to separate us but must shape them to bring us together as safely as possible. We now know that some us can work from home, but isolation is not the answer. We need more, not less, physical conference rooms and hang-out spaces, more places of interaction and density. The means of bringing us together need to be safer, cheaper, and more accessible.
We need to strengthen public transport, integrate and democratize digital access, and create more usable public space. Our cities, suburbs, and exurbs need to be better connected. We need places where we are safe not only from the virus, but also from violence and prejudice. Those havens need to be designed not out of fear or paranoia, but with the idea of shelter and community foremost in mind. We don’t need fortresses of health and safety; we need villages: nodes of gathering and connection within a world of sprawl. The traditional city is not the solution, but neither is the suburb: We should aspire to some new form of hybrid between openness and density at every scale.
Images and forms matter. We need to design spaces, buildings, and cities that represent who we are in all our complex identities, the diverse places from which we have come, and what we can be if we come together. We need to design our world in better ways that are inclusive, filled with memory and belonging, and open to the future. They must be and look familiar, giving us shelter and a sense of place, without being so specific as to exclude others by either act or implication.
As citizens, designers must also act politically, in our communities and beyond, to prevent the current crisis from increasing the concentration of wealth among the richest Americans, from building racism and sexism further into our daily reality, and from causing the deaths of millions through hunger and poverty—not to mention helping accelerate the destruction of our environment. That, I believe, is what this current administration’s policies are achieving, not to mention those of other local and national leaders, and we must fight them.
Perhaps the problems that I have briefly outlined above do not, in fact, have solutions. Yes, the simple act of wearing masks (which could become another design problem: How do we make that natural, even sexy?) and washing your hands are easy starting points. But we need to do more when so many in this country do not have access to basic rights like clean water, sanitation, health care, education, spatial justice, and housing.
Finally, we also need to acknowledge the presence of risk. We need to get beyond the lie that enough technology can keep us all safe from whatever danger confronts us. That is not only wrong, but also perpetuates the allocation of resources to the wealthy. At the deepest level, we need design that acknowledges that to be human is to take chances. We must confront some level of danger and risk to live our lives fully. Design must come from and lead to openness, not to fear and fortresses.
And, please, just wear your damn mask.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.