Turn the norm (not a return to norm)

Illustration by Monica Hutton

When lockdowns and stay-at-home orders began to respond to Covid-19, so did questions of when things can “return to normal”. This line of questioning attempts to untether and separate a pre-virus, present virus, and desired post-virus condition. It holds a problematic premise that if we could somehow get back to the way things were, then we could move beyond the devastating events and present discomforts. In recent months we have heard from across the medical field that there are strong correlations between pre-existing health conditions and the capacity of human bodies to overcome the effects of the virus. This raises a critical point about our relationship to time – that pre-existing conditions are thoroughly and inextricably entangled with present conditions and future outcomes.

There is not a finite end to the virus in sight, suggesting a need to think critically about our relationship to time. This is a relationship that has already been disrupted across the world, although in vastly different ways. For those in positions to isolate and shelter-in-place, the pace may have slowed with a lack of work or previous plans canceled and postponed. Others, such as parents working from home, will have taken on additional responsibilities related to the education and care of their children. Many have had to shift into overdrive, notably the frontline workers for whom the pace has never been so demanding. Regardless, schedules and freedoms of movement have been interrupted in ways that have opened us all up to think about time differently.

As much as the present conditions may rightfully feel out of control, people are also tuned into an almost real-time relationship with graphs and calls from government leaders to help actively “flatten the curve”. Creatives have been meeting across various digital platforms to discuss and debate what the role of design is, immediately and over the long-term. We can already point to countless countermeasures emerging in response to the pandemic, as new formats of communication, domestic hybridity, and decentralized supply chains suggest how we could live with alternate schedules, value systems, and balances moving forward. Some designers have jumped into practical and actionable responses: prototypes for immediate aid; flipping the production of makerspaces to PPE; sharing expertise with health experts. Other practices have taken this time to explore the speculative capacities of architecture, seeing value in projecting possible futures at a time when physical construction has slowed. Others are digging back through research to revisit alternate approaches to what got us here, and to bring forward precedents of design movements that have come out of past crises. Many are operating in a middle ground between these various modes. A cross-cutting question for all architects and designers: what pre-existing conditions in the built environment make this time unequally difficult to live in, and how can design lead us to more equitable futures?

Beyond the scale of individual biological bodies, there are underlying factors, in both urban and rural environments, that amplify effect and disproportionately spread burdens of consequence. The modification of landscapes, buildings, and habitats that has occurred over centuries—through the expropriation of land, construction processes, and the formation of codes and policies—forms the social, political, and economic predispositions of our environments. When met with the force of a pandemic, a hurricane, a flood, a wildfire, or a combination of these crises, shortcomings in care, and inequalities of access, exposure, and distribution are heightened. These are the existing cracks and fissures that we need to tend to with timely and thoughtful care.

The ways in which the pandemic is affecting areas and populations differently is bringing attention to an uneven topography of exposure to harmful environments and pollutants. Early studies are looking at links between regional air pollution and the number of Covid-19-related fatalities. The connection between inequalities and pollution is not a new area of investigation. Take for example Steve Lerner’s book, Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure. The coming months and years should see continued investigations into the dynamic and political interrelationships between geography, environmental harm, demographics, and health. Architecture plays a critical role in forming these complex relationships, structurally and spatially defining how environments are occupied with varying densities, proximities and activities.

The definition of “essential work” has highlighted the human labour that keeps urban systems intact and operational. This includes food and farming practices, mail deliveries, transportation and maintenance crews, and sanitation workers. The individuals performing the tasks necessary to move raw materials, products and waste through cities and their peripheries have the most intimate physical connections to infrastructural systems. These connections are also what exposes workers to health-related risks, and design has the capacity to help alleviate unnecessary harm. The term “essential” has also raised criticisms of some of the labour that has been sustained through the pandemic. This includes continued work on oil and gas infrastructure, such as the Coastal GasLink pipeline that provoked significant public protest prior to the limitations placed on public gatherings. Concerns are now amplifying the unnecessary harm this labour can bring to Indigenous peoples.

Although isolation is currently at unprecedented levels, urban loneliness and inadequate conditions for the most vulnerable have been part of much longer discussions in urbanism. The ability to choose isolation can be a privilege or a luxury. However, the pandemic has raised levels of alarm for marginalized individuals and groups that are isolated through widening inequality. Initiatives have organized, at varying scales and degrees of formality, to reach those living in need of housing or medical treatment, facing food insecurity, fleeing violence, incarcerated, or otherwise in exceptional need of care. The vulnerability of the elderly and children have become specific points of concern, which can elevate design strategies for multi-generational living and support. More resources are necessary to expand, develop and carry these initiatives forward.

The initial rush to respond medically to the pandemic, compounded by individualistic hoarding tactics, highlighted a dependence on global supply chains and outsourcing. Shortcomings in domestic production provoked a flurry of self-made, ad-hoc, and resourceful responses that have brought a surge of creativity: hacking existing products; sewing protective equipment; spatially organizing new ways to live, work, play and educate. These initiatives are not exclusive to design professionals, largely generated out of necessities or motivations to improve surroundings by people across various fields of interest. Architecture studios and universities have responded by shifting production to open-source and collaborative initiatives to fill gaps in the supply of protective equipment and develop new prototypes. From this, more diverse partnerships, skills, delivery methods, and experimentations have emerged that can offer more dexterity to design responses.

With large segments of the human population inside, people are living vicariously through images of the other species that are occupying the streets, national, provincial and city parks and open spaces. Over time, urban sprawl has encroached further on pre-existing habitats, increasing species interdependencies such as human waste becoming a primary food source for many. The popularity of countless media stories with photographs and videos of animals moving through urban environments reveals a deep human fascination with the current behaviour of other species. The context and framing of these images have understandably been a source of debate, but the heightened visibility of the dynamics between humans and non-humans seems to hold great potential to advance interspecies design in more meaningful ways.

This is not a time to shy away from environmental concerns. It is a time to recognize that the current challenges are tangled up within a complex set of crises in the built environment that preceded the appearance of Covid-19, and will continue to live with us. Responsibility does not simply fall on an isolated group or geography, leaving others to move on untouched. We need to address how design can be situated to move towards more equitable futures. The response to the pandemic to-date is evidence of the capacity of collective efforts to face a crisis that is taken seriously. Instead of returning to comfortable habits that have contributed to the current conditions, we should take this time of interruption to reset how we choose to affectively step back into the streets, workplaces, and social spaces. This requires ensuring that we do not become more divided in the process, and turn this time of isolation into a force of collective change.

Monica Hutton is a Toronto-based designer, and author of the book University of Manitoba Modern.