As the novel coronavirus spread itself across the globe, academic institutions around the world closed their doors and migrated to online learning. Thus ensued the greatest experiment in virtual working, teaching, and learning—and it is likely that its impact will be felt long after the pandemic has ended. In keeping with the shift to remote learning, the University of Miami School of Architecture (where I'm an associate dean and director of the B.Arch. program) initiated a global interview series to assure that we were tracking the conversations revolving around architecture and the COVID-19 pandemic in real time.

Compiled from more than 30 conversations with leading urbanists, architects, educators, and theorists, the following presents important themes and considerations for the profession moving forward.

Rethinking Density
As noted by Rodolphe el-Khoury, dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture, high-density populations are often associated with higher rates of transmission, causing fear both inside and outside these communities. “In the short run, people will likely be wary of skyscrapers, elevators and mass-transit,” he says. “And depending on how long this pandemic lasts, we may see a more or less significant move away from cities in search of lower density environments.”

Pre-pandemic, the city was in ascendance. Now, suburbia may have a second life. Understandably, they may be viewed by the general public as “healthier” in light of the new social distancing norms. And yet as a profession, we know that a return to suburbia would be a mistake. “The American suburb, with its shopping malls, cul-de-sacs, utilitarian office towers, lack of public space, and no pedestrian network, is a parasitic model that is unsustainable,” says theorist and urbanist Leon Krier. This critique was launched by the leaders of the New Urbanism movement, Andres Duany, FAIA, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, FAIA, (both interviewed as part of the series) as early as the late 1970s, and their proposals for compact new towns, capable of producing a polycentric network of walkable communities, continues to be an alternative model to America’s suburban sprawl.

In response to the possible short-term decentralization of cities, author, urbanist, and University of Toronto professor Richard Florida argues that there might be a “sweet spot” when it comes to density. He points to the benefits of communities that have a vibrant street life, such as Miami Beach, as an alternative model. “The suburbs can be isolating and disconnected,” he says. “By contrast, Miami Beach is neither a suburb nor is it hyper-dense. It is a multi-use, peri-urban community that offers convenience, vibrancy, and connectivity.”

Florida also notes that while interest in suburban environments may increase in the short term, historically, pandemics have never dampened the building of cities. Through it all, urbanization has been the greater force than infectious disease.

Designing for Equity
While density and its impact on urban form is a critical factor when thinking about health and the design of the built environment, it is only one of the variables at play in attempting to understand the root causes of contagion during an epidemic. “It is not solely the typology of density that is the challenge; but rather how density intersects with inequality, be that health or economy,” says Julia King, a research fellow at the London School of Economics.

Alejandro Portes, director of the Center for Migration and Development at Princeton University and law professor at the University of Miami, points as one example to the Black Plague, which killed approximately a third of Europe’s urban population. Those who had the means avoided death by moving away from the city, a reality that was recently repeated in New York City where tens of thousands of affluent citizens left for secondary or alternative residences.

Unfortunately, the working class often does not have the opportunity to flee to open rural landscapes. These are the people on the front lines, picking crops, working in meat-packing plants, delivering products, and supporting the food networks that are vital for our survival. As pointed out by Mabel Wilson, designer and professor at Columbia University, this population is predominantly brown or black and has been the hardest hit in this pandemic. “These communities suffer from poor health and poor housing," she says, "often the tangible byproducts of disenfranchisement, dispossession, and exploitation.”

The discussion of density and class is intensified in the Global South. It is projected that by 2050, approximately 2 billion people will be living in informal settlements (that is, slums), and the majority of this population will be situated in the Global South. These communities do not permit physical distancing, and hygiene and proper infrastructure are virtually non-existent.

Architects and urban designers, will need to employ bottom-up, low-tech solutions as well as top-down initiatives—including the building of community quarantine shelters and centralized infrastructural systems—to address these challenges and prevent the rampant spread of disease in these areas. Richard Sennett, professor of sociology at LSE and senior adviser to the United Nations’ Climate Change and Cities program, stresses that “remaking density in this context includes reliance on mass transit, the decentralization of functions like factories, and the shortening of supply chains. It is a whole other kind of thinking; and while these challenges are more in the realm of planning and urban design than architecture, they are deeply spatial.”

How can architects and urban designers help root out some of these inequities? Amelia Brandao and Rodrigo Costa Lima, principals of Portugal-based firm Architecture Matters, urge architects to move outside of their insular circles and play a more relevant role in the debate surrounding legislation, public policy, and the shaping of cities. These are the invisible networks that set the ground rules for housing and mass transit projects, for instance—two areas critical to the creation of more equitable cities.

New Spatial Sensibilities
Today, much of the U.S. population has continued to work remotely. This has transformed the dwelling into a live-work unit, often with multiple family members overlapping within the same space. Could this new reality call into question the hegemony of the open plan as advocated by modernist architects more than 100 years ago?

“The concept of flexibility, is mistakenly connected to open spatial environments,” says Robert Levit, associate dean and professor at the University of Toronto. “In reality, flexibility can more readily be achieved through spatial divisions and a multiplicity of rooms that promote the assignment and reassignment of different uses.” The recent extended period of confinement might instead cause a shift in sensibilities towards more compartmentalized interiors. “The prospect for this kind of interior environment requires a certain spatial luxury,” Levit continues. “Micro-units in dense urban centers are simply not divisible.” In a post-COVID-19 era, the desire for greater divisibility may require a revised urban landscape. Henry Green, real estate developer and agriculturist, emphasizes that this reality, coupled with the long-term implications of remote working and the resulting decline of commercial real estate, will lead to the transformation of space in the city center to be repurposed for new live/work scenarios.

How and where we educate students will also be transformed. For better or for worse, this experience will concretize the presence of the digital interfaces. “Sometimes it takes a crisis to recognize that we are already living in a different world,” says Nader Tehrani, dean of Cooper Union’s School of Architecture and principal of Boston-based NADAAA.

While enrollment in dense urban universities might suffer in the short run, the dynamic exchanges and sense of community created in the physical world will persist long after the end of this pandemic. El-Khoury notes that the adoption of hybrid models that capitalize on the strength of online and in-person instruction may be the best way to move forward. Implementing virtual lectures that allow students to listen independently will allow classrooms to be places of discussion and greater interaction. Similarly, design studios may integrate periods of on-site learning at the beginning of the semester when design is most open-ended and speculative; and digital instruction in the final stages of a project when design is most prescriptive.

The Road Ahead
The degree to which we will witness physical changes to our built environment will largely depend on the length and severity of the pandemic. If it lasts less than a year, we will likely see only minor changes to the physical structure of cities. Instead, the focus will be on the implementation of policies that promote public hygiene and the adoption of virtual mediums that permit less person-to-person contact. This seems to already be in motion. On May 6, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, will head a blue-ribbon commission to reimagine New York post COVID-19 with an emphasis on permanently integrating technology into civic life. An unexpected consequence of this may be the monitoring of health as a mechanism of control, an idea that up until now had only been imagined in science fiction films. Tehrani underscores this point: “Your passport typically contains your citizenship, place of birth, etc.; it rarely includes the state of your health,” he says. “I believe the monitoring of health may become the single and most radical transformation to emerge from this pandemic.”

In times of crisis, we are often asked to make the most difficult of decisions. In his interview, Rafael Balboa, co-founder of Studio Wasabi and senior researcher at the University of Tokyo, explained that the Japanese word for crisis is kiki. The first character stands for danger and the second for opportunity. In this moment of uncertainty, will the architectural profession make or support decisions based on fear? Or will it be guided by a desire to find the root causes of the problems that created this pandemic and advocate for solutions that will create a world that is fundamentally more beautiful, more sustainable and more equitable? In large and small ways, the choice will be ours to make.

Editor's note: We regularly publish opinion columns that we think would be of service to our readers. The views and conclusions from these authors are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of The American Institute of Architects.