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How the design of places can support the COVID-19 emergency and shape a post-crisis society

How the design of places can support the COVID-19 emergency and shape a post-crisis society

3 April 2020 Written by By Catherine Horwill Programme Head

A few days into the COVID-19 lockdown, Design Council virtually gathered a group of Built Environment Experts to harness their shared brainpower and conceive meaningful ways in which we, as a collective group and national organisation, could provide immediate help. 

Maayan Ashkenazi, Andrew Cameron, Cat Drew, Beatrice Fraenkel, Gyorgyi Galik, Tim Gill, Marcus Grant, Sabina Mohideen, Sue Morgan, Peter Neal, Deb Upadhyaya and Camilla Ween joined the conversation. This conversation ran alongside a discussion with our Design Associates which are summarised together here in a blog by Cat Drew, our Chief Design Officer. 

As we round the second week of government-imposed COVID-19 lockdown, we are seeing the incredible fortitude of communities and individuals, generously providing for those who might otherwise fall through the cracks, aren’t able to leave their house or just need a little bit of extra joy. Around the UK people are calling upon quarantined neighbours to deliver groceries, checking in on for those living alone and others are redirecting their trade and skills to fill the demand for medical supplies. One week after the call went out for volunteers to support the NHS, hundreds of thousands have signed up ( and in cities thousands of hotel rooms are being seconded to provide accommodation for the homeless.  

This to say people, communities and organisations are eager to chip in, be helpful and create a collective safety net. However as is the nature of emergencies solutions are being bandaged together and problems solved as they arise. What’s missing is strategic co-ordination of resources to help those most in need, provide guidance amongst the chaos and create collective knowledge.  

The medical emergency of COVID-19 is the focus of governmental resources (and rightly so). However, the effects of this pandemic reach far beyond those infected with the virus. Not everyone has the space to work at home, let alone to create a classroom and playground. And beyond these newfound demands on our homes, people are grieving for an individual and collective loss of normalcy with little hope of relief. With all of this in mind we posed the question how can our places and place-based systems better support us in this time? Below are some ideas.  

Use data to match repurposed amenity spaces with people who most need it 

Existing community and spatial mapping could be used to analyse the level of need and resources required to better target spatial solutions. Data is already being used to identify medically vulnerable groups. In a similar way we should be using datasets to identify areas with the largest groups requiring additional support / space and marrying these groups with what built environment assets to support them.  

This might include concentrated efforts to:  

Ensure natural spaces remain open 

Natural spaces support better mental health and provide places for recreation for physical health. Spaces such as parks, allotments and forests contribute positively to health and wellbeing and are a great source of safe social interaction at a distance, physical activity and food. Local authorities, conservation organisations and committees should safeguard / promote recreational and therapeutic use of natural spaces. Taking account of social distancing, we need to find ways to manage, create guidance for and support use rather than close these spaces. The continued use of natural spaces in a safe manner, needs clearer guidance. 

Repurpose public buildings to provide accommodation or quiet spaces 

Many homes do not have space for people to work or study from home long term. Temporarily repurposing public facilities such as libraries, sport centres for consistent socially distanced work/study could provide much need quiet and time out space. This would require a systematic oversight.  

Reconfigure streets for recreation and physically-distanced movement 

With reduced vehicular traffic but increased need for wider circulation, temporary play, outdoor work areas, and many people in need of some daily privacy, streets can provide much needed space. Temporarily extending the pavement into the street, using of parking spaces as micro parks, or closing off whole residential streets to vehicular traffic are all possible solutions. This could all be done with traffic cones, or tape, and a map but needs guidelines and an emergency framework.  

Closing or calming more major routes will need top down approaches, but the smaller interventions such as designating streets differently, by stating what sorts of things are allowed, could free up huge amounts of space rapidly without having to overly prescribe each solution.  

Provide a platform to share grassroots innovations 

Across the UK there is already incredible innovation and thoughtfulness on how to best address this emergency. A platform for grassroots innovations and compendium of emergency responses could help spread these ideas, allowing others to benefit from the knowledge gained and solutions already found. There is also an archive of international emergency responses that could help get solutions in place faster.   

Create an emergency framework directory of new places and guidelines 

Many people and communities have already started to use space differently; a pavement extended temporarily whilst traffic is reduced, or a street used for hopscotch. This is largely done through local knowledge and circumstance. What’s need is a more joined-up, commonly understood network of spaces that people can access and utilise – as well as clear messaging e.g. these streets can be used for play and exercise. This will likely need to be done with conversations between councils to stitch together knowledge across boundaries.  The network could include: 

  •  Make-Do Street Space
  • Exercise/Activity: establish/compile fixed distance local walking and exercise routes ​
  • Children’s play: ‘social-distance-friendly' play activities and areas  
  • Local food production spaces
  • Work and study spaces  
  • Active travel routes 

What does this emergency mean for how we create places in the future? 

Do we need to build bigger homes? Do we need more open spaces? Establish future protocols of emergency behaviour and spaces?  Perhaps (in fact likely). But right now, it’s more important to bring design expertise and insights to bear on the more urgent challenges. But we do need to start collecting data on how our behaviours are changing and the impact that is having. This will help organisations and decision makers evaluate the waste that was occurring previously and how/if new practices are delivering social, environmental and economic improvement. In times of crisis, people have a different attitude to changing their habits and willingness to uptake new behaviours. We need to collect data to demonstrate the impact of our new localised lives, how places are (or aren’t) meeting this need and capture the opportunity to implement meaningful change.  

Reflecting on our key partnerships across the private, public and third sector we have crafted the following challenge statements that will support us to focus our efforts over the coming months and in the future: 

  1. How can we retrofit neighbourhoods, urban public space and green space to allow for low-density exercise and play which is good for social trust & mental well-being? 
  2. How can we create safe and hygienic transportation which allows the resilient supply & movement of people, food & equipment to the right places at the right time? 
  3. How can we repurpose or re-use buildings, housing and accommodation to allow for physically and mentally healthy self-isolation and home working? 
  4. How can we utilise and build upon current behaviour changes and appreciation of nature to address global warming and reducing greenhouse gas emissions? 
  5. How can we ensure ongoing relief efforts are equitable and inclusive? 

Over the coming months Design Council will be running regular roundtables, convening our partners as well as consolidating the wave of information to help answer these challenges. If you would like to follow along subscribe to our newsletter or have any queries please do get in touch on  

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