The pandemic has impacted our lives in ways that are physical, social, psychological and spatial. The way we interact with each other and our surroundings has changed profoundly and, in many cases, permanently.
For urban planners and designers, these are interesting times. How will they anticipate the evolving needs of the people who rely on residential, commercial and community design to live, work, play and connect with one another.
We held a round-table discussion with three icona leaders to explore these questions and consider the ways in which our homes, offices and communities could evolve in the years to come.
Our post-pandemic design panel included:
Ling Meng, Director of Urban Planning at icona and an internationally recognized and award-winning urban designer with 20 years’ experience at Bing Thom Architects.
Laurie Schmidt, Vice President Development at icona, former President of Schmidt and Associates Development Planning, and a planner with three decades of real estate development experience.
Michael Heeney, Partner at C+O Advisory and an internationally recognized leader, city builder, architect and urban strategist.
Laurie: People were forced to work from home in environments that weren't designed for that use. They had to improvise, repurposing kitchen tables and bedrooms into makeshift work spaces. Now that remote work and hybrid work have shifted from a novelty to a viable, long-term option, we will see domestic spaces being intentionally designed with more flexibility, so that they can support a range of activities while creating much-needed separation between work and home.
Michael: The pandemic changed the way we shop as well as the way we work. Reliance on ecommerce increased and that's likely to continue. Big-box retail is morphing into delivery as people avoid big, crowded environments, and residential buildings will need to be equipped with pick-up lockers and refrigerated storage to accommodate the trend.
Ling: In North America, our home spaces have become very defined. We have separate rooms for living, for dining, for sleeping. As our spaces become even more multifunctional, that may no longer be the best way to design. I come from an Asian background and lived in Tokyo, where spaces are modular and multipurpose. Each apartment had sliders that could be opened to create a great room or closed to create smaller spaces. In this way, a single room could have multiple purposes at different times of the day or night. If you think about divided rooms as one flexible space, then suddenly, you open up different ideas about how to design a unit.
We can learn from European as well as Asian design. In Europe, most units extend from north to south so that they can get more fresh air, and open hallways offer kids a safe place to play outdoors. In North America, our corridors are double-loaded — a central hallway with units branching off front and back — because it's an efficient use of space. But as a result, we get no cross-ventilation. We can learn so much when we search globally for best practices that support flexible living and healthier lifestyles.
Laurie: A lot of these changes will also require changes at the zoning level. We need to give developers additional free floorspace so that they can provide pickup and drop-off areas or build external hallways and walkways to replace double-loaded corridors.
Ling: To look into the future, we need to look back into history and talk about the fundamentals. I think we will go back to basics: sunlight, fresh air, big balconies that give people access to the outdoors. Design and development have become very focused on efficiency and density, but the pandemic has reminded us of the importance of quality of life.
Laurie: It's interesting — will public and common spaces have to be larger and more open to avoid close proximity? Or will we slowly acclimatize and become more comfortable with close contact?
Michael: I have the same questions. Tall buildings may not feel so glamorous any more. Using elevators has become nerve-racking and frustrating for many people. They want human-scale buildings where they can take the stairs if need be. This experience has also given people a new appreciation for the outdoors. We are likely to see bigger balconies and outdoor spaces — balconies big enough to seat six. It's exciting. We could be on the cusp of seeing living spaces that are very different.
Michael: They will definitely be different. Larger companies will contract their floorspace and create more open spaces. That's where the revolution is coming. We still need space for collaboration and creative magic. But we don't need people sitting in private offices or cubicles doing heads-down work. Offices will become places where we interface and connect with colleagues.
We will see more companies adopting a hub-and-spoke model, with a flagship office downtown and small, satellite offices closer to where employees live.
Laurie: I agree 100%. Humans are social animals. We need to interact. We can't just sit in our home offices. We're going to see hybrid models where work is more flexible and different activities can take place in different spaces.
Ling: We talked about the need to support new ecommerce and delivery preferences. But that is only part of the picture, because people are also increasingly shopping local. Since the pandemic, I have been going to local shops more frequently, because they are out in the open air and I can get in and out quickly. I see my neighbours more frequently because they are shopping this way, too.
Michael: I'm also living local much more than before. With a more flexible work week, people are shopping locally and taking advantage of the opportunity to buy fresher foods more frequently. It suggests this idea of a "sub-centre" — a space that sits between a pure urban or pure suburban environment.
Laurie: The pandemic has shown us that every community, whether urban or suburban, can benefit from access to things like small, local grocery stores. Communities also have a role to play in supporting a hybrid model of working. People will need more opportunities to socialize close to home in their off hours. We need to make room for more mixed-use space.
Michael: If we are working from home more and commuting less, we can tolerate longer commutes on the days that we do go into the office. (We may also see commute times shortening as more people travel off peak times on flexible schedules.) As a result, hybrid work will open up new opportunities for people to live in satellite communities — locations that are further away from urban centres, but equipped with a "third space" — places within walking distance where they can work, play, socialize and shop. We'll see community centres become facilities that extend the living space. They will be smaller, nearer and more multi-purpose: in addition to skating rinks and swimming pools, they will include small libraries, workstations and co-working.
Ling: Community spaces will become more versatile and more central to a way of life. We have seen parallel parking stalls and the midblock or mid-row area of the street turned into outdoor seating areas, adding more usable and enjoyable outdoor space. It's bringing people outdoors, encouraging them to walk more and interact more. Community amenities such as parks and running tracks are used far more frequently. The community is more alive. It's a very positive thing.
Ultimately, residential, commercial and community designers will be asking, how can we effectively utilize resources? How can a parking space become a retail or recreational space? How can the living room become a workspace? How can a community centre support hybrid work? Flexibility and ingenuity will be key as we all find new ways to adapt and adjust.