The surreal decor of our new reality – empty streets and duct-taped stores – will forever be the iconic image of these times. In times of social distancing, we’re presented with the challenge of adapting public spaces in order to keep people distant from one another. To be able to implement social distance governments have introduced many different regulations at a very fast pace. In response, municipalities, shops, and individuals had to quickly come up with hacks and simple solutions to make these regulations possible. Like so many other things, this period changes completely the way we experience public space.
Design for public space is traditionally very much about stimulating social interaction between people. When designers design public spaces they often challenge themselves to come up with new ways for people to engage with each other while being outside. Think about benches in public space designed for people to sit while facing one another, triggering them to chat. Or the many great examples of city squares designed to activate people to use the urban public space as a playground, no matter how old they are. In a way, pre-corona contemporary public space design often aims to design for proximity.
DUCT TAPE FOR DISTANCE
For example, the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn allows people to shop only with a shopping cart or a basket, for the sake of minimizing their contact with other shoppers. A more general example is the use of duct tape in public areas in order to block certain spaces from being used by people. Many public places have been covered with bright duct tape, with the attempt to control the physical distance between people. Like an entire staircase in the heart of Singapore marked with yellow X shapes creating large spaces between people. The irony is, that with the call for people to stay at home, both the ‘X spaces’ and the open spaces are often left empty. The duct tape safe-distance marking has become almost an iconic decor of public life in this strange period.
There are even a few new Instagram pages documenting different forms of social distance in public spaces. Such as ‘Tape_Measures‘, an account dedicated entirely to being a visual record of safe-distancing markers found across Singapore. Another newly-formed Singapory Instagram page called ‘Antisocialsocialdistancingsg’ claims to “applaud the efforts in these strange times on our sunny island”.
POST-CORONA PUBLIC SPACE
These ‘Design for Distance’ efforts, as strange as they may feel, are also very intriguing. Especially for crowded urban environments wherein non-corona times city planners and engineers try to come up with solutions to ‘squeeze’ as many people as possible into major hot spots. Will something of these efforts remain when the epidemic has passed? Will we witness policymakers and city planners rethinking public spaces, taking into consideration epidemic periods where people have to keep a safe distance from one another?
The solutions mentioned above may not be very consciously designed but are nevertheless inspiring. Imagine future designs responding to the scenario of more frequent epidemic periods, changing the way our urban environments look like. Imagine tables and seatings including space for physical distance. Or sidewalks designed to embed a void. Think about benches in the park designed for sitting together apart. Imagine metro’s where people sit two meters apart from each other.
While thinking about practical considerations as a starting point for Design for Distance we should also take into consideration the social implications of such movement. Can design for social distance remain human and empathic? And how can designers help with keeping physical distance between people, while stimulating other forms of closeness?
By Shay Raviv, social designer and design researcher