Social Distance and Social Space

Will Covid-19 Redefine Multi Family Outdoor Space as We Know it?

The need to connect with nature and with each other are two fundamental drivers that lie at the core of our values as designers of the urban environment. But the Covid-19 crisis has many of us wondering if some basic tenets used to program, design and build urban open- space will be challenged by the anticipated “new normal” of urban life. How will gardens best be experienced from both the indoors, and the outdoors? How far apart – or close together – will be the new standard as people sit around a pool, gather on a roof deck, or walk down the sidewalk. Perhaps most importantly, will designers be faced with new criteria or societal expectations when they set about creating outdoor amenities and open space?

It is clear now that the impacts from Covid-19 will remain a part of living in cities and suburbs for a long time to come. We have seen that recent trends in multi-family home design have been towards smaller living units and greater emphasis on common areas and a diversity of outdoor amenities that create a sense of community. Now, careful design consideration must be given to the spatial layout of these spaces and the expectations of people using them. Natural light and fresh air circulation will prove even more important to interior spaces. But, what you see when you look out your windows will be equally critical. Views of plants, sky and open space are a time-tested axiom of hospital design when considering patient healing and length of stay factors. We have also heard from our clients that units facing onto planting areas and well-designed open space have greater value to prospective tenants and may result in longer retention. As residents will likely be spending more time at home, the healing qualities of these views and access to courtyard gardens and outdoor workspace where they feel a greater sense of control will also prove critical to their sense of well-being. Given that space is always a premium when it comes to designing amenities, designing smaller outdoor rooms for individual and small group gatherings and work activities with wifi connection and power outlets, will have greater value.

15 square feet is a design standard used to calculate unconcentrated occupancy loads for common open space. This translates to approximately 4’ x 4’ per person. The current six-foot social distancing requirement doubles this area to 36 square feet. If this becomes a standard it will have significant impacts on projects from the total number of units to the size and number of people using common open space. Some of this may be managed by limiting the number of occupants, the amount of furnishings provided, their size and configuration. Smaller fixed furnishings may also become more common.

Recent images on the news of people crowding beaches and parks is evidence of the innate need to experience nature and interact with each other, even at the potential risk to our health. But designers, policy makers, and developers will find themselves rethinking how to enhance and support these needs within a framework of new rules and expectations. How we experience urban living, how we work, relax and recreate, and how designers keep cities and suburbs exciting and vibrant places may depend on it. In our next publication, we will further explore the design implications introduced above, and other relevant themes.