How will we approach the health of our communities and our planet after COVID-19?
As the world faces one of the worst pandemics in recent memory, we now make conscious, everyday decisions that immediately protect our health. Stories across continents are shared of daily challenges and concerns around how our lives have changed. I live in a 15th floor apartment – how do I navigate the elevator in my building? Once allowed back to work, how do I safely commute?
All these concerns and questions will and have already prompted architects, designers, and planners to reevaluate our cities with a new lens, prioritizing public health.
Today’s built environment has been informed by lessons from global health crises of the past. Legionnaires’ Disease in the mid-1970s predominantly culminated in improved air circulation and exchange to reduce moisture build-up in the mechanical systems of convention centres and hotel facilities. In 2003, SARS phased out hospital wards in many countries, replacing them with private and semi-private patient rooms.
Now, in 2020, what will a ’healthy’ world look like post-COVID-19? And how we will approach social and environmental health differently?
HEALTHY SOCIAL BEHAVIOURS
Our very nature is to congregate. More so now, we are socializing online. Anxiety and loneliness, especially for those who live alone, is at a record high and millions of people around the world are suffering from declining mental health. Working parents are now tasked to simultaneously home school their children and meet job demands. We have governments, health institutions, scientific researchers and media telling us how to mentally cope, but also how to physically limit our interaction, movement and behaviour. And while physical public health is intended to protect our collective health, “social distancing” runs the risk of damaging it. We are inherently social beings. Aristotle likely said it the most bluntly, “Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”
What has become apparent to me in this global health crisis is the obligation of architects, planners, landscape architects and interior designers to sunset the term ‘social distancing.’ We should be promoting “physical distancing”, designing to protect social interaction by exploring and promoting all of the various methods and ‘two-metre safe radius’ opportunities we have.
B+H’s Toronto studio was recently tasked with envisioning a new entrance to an iconic Canadian attraction. We immediately sought to create a ‘physically distanced congregation,’ with experience-enhancing amenities. We proposed the entry line-up walkway commence outdoors, with raised overhead sun and precipitation cover, bordered by long, shallow moving water features—not via an increased number of crowd control stanchions and ropes—to create distance between attendees while also providing a more enjoyable queueing experience.
HARNESSING HEALTHY TECHNOLOGY
How can tracking data improve the wellbeing of humans and our planet? Can data become part of our pandemic mitigation strategy? As COVID-19 has spread across our globe, I have been sharing the news of the World Green Building Council’s ‘Plant a Sensor campaign, launched on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this past April. As part of this year’s Earth Day anniversary programming, the Earth Challenge 2020 was also launched which involves a network of organizations aiming to trigger action towards a healthier, more sustainable built environment by making real-time indoor air quality (IAQ) visible and transparent to the public.
Using mobile technology, the program gathers citizen science data across core environmental indicators, aiming for global monitoring coverage of one billion data points. The first focus is already tracking local indoor air quality and plastic pollution. Then in June, participants will collect data on insect populations and other critical environmental factors. These billion sensors and their data sets will provide evidence to promote policy change and action, but I see opportunities for this network and these data sets to do so much more.
Serendipitously, all our B+H studios are equipped with IAQ monitors and our staff can view live data at any time via an App on their mobile phone. We have publicly disclosed each studio’s temperature, humidity, total volatile organic compounds (VOC), C02 and PM2.5, large particulate matter readings day and night since World Green Building Week in September 2016. Now, I am thinking about how we can recalibrate these monitors, the App and link to other Apps to measure for respiratory and other airborne pathogen particles. Can citizen-led monitoring and data sets can advance the protection of our health?
When I say “citizen science” to the twenty-somethings in my family, they physically looked uncomfortable. Unlike the East, the West has an inherent fear of the concept. Do we need to shift our outlook on this post-pandemic? Maybe it is time we recognize citizen science as a tool to protect our collective health and wellbeing, and not just data for big marketers.
PREPARING FOR FUTURE CRISES
Is the framework of Eastern culture and society better equipped to combat a pandemic? In China, public health authority protocols and procedures are not questioned, they are followed. Citizen compliance to daily health and temperature checks is not queried, it is permitted. What is the go-forward plan as we get past COVID-19 but do not know the trajectory of the next pandemic?
There is evidence that COVID-19 spreads rampantly across the earth’s highly polluted bands of air. There is other evidence that it accelerated in populous cities when high temperature and high humidity hit certain levels that were optimum for airborne transference. Just look at Seoul, in which a flare-up of COVID cases occurred after reopening night clubs too soon. Singapore is back under a lock-down until June 1st amidst a much greater second wave of the outbreak.
All of B+H’s Asia studios are back to working from our studios, except for Singapore. Our Shanghai studio was only mandated to be closed from January 25 to February 10, although we elected to keep it closed until February 17, with our staff working remotely during that time. What did Shanghai and China do differently to recover in the matter of weeks? Moreover, what can the West learn from the East to tackle future health crises?
We have seen that the baseline operational protocols are different in every studio, depending on guidelines issued by the local public health authorities. In Shanghai, B+H had a phased return-to-studio process which was contingent on clearance for staff from local public health authorities. We also offered staff alternating work hour blocks in the day and evening, allowing for commuting during non-peak hours. Temperature checks and screening at the building entries have been in place since mid-February as well as the use of face masks in the workplace throughout the day. On-staff cleaners, cleaning products and procedures are following health authority protocols. There are no large group meetings, and videoconferencing is being used in place of in-person meetings wherever possible. There is limited studio access for visitors.
In a 2015 Ted Talk, Bill Gates discussed Ebola and the fortunate circumstances that resulted in it not becoming a global crisis. However, he did forewarn that his researchers were anticipating another pandemic within two years, and then the trajectory thereafter could be every six months. While we can’t be sure on the exact timing, we know that another pandemic will come. What lessons can we learn from countries around the world to better prepare us for this inevitability?
COVID-19 has underscored just how much we are all inextricably linked. Pandemics do not respect country borders and ultimately, we are all in this together. We must examine how we can better monitor, identify, and prepare at a global level. True environmental and social wellbeing – and ultimately the health of the planet and people – will only be achieved if we mobilize our collective efforts, encourage radical monitoring and transparency and harness data sets as a tool for common good and human survival.
Lisa Bate is Principal and Global Sustainability Lead at B+H.