Crisis is upon us, triggered by the Corona virus a.k.a. Covid-19. Everyday life has come to a standstill. By now the entire world is affected, leading to the declaration of a global pandemic. Is the built environment in any way impacted, or for that matter, the culture or the economy of building and construction? A brief discussion of the political, social and spatial dimensions of the Covid-19 pandemic shed light on this question.
The political dimension
Each nation responds to the Covid-19 pandemic in relation to political structure, governance mode and mechanisms of crisis and emergency management. In the case of states with federated forms of government, such as the USA or Germany, emergency management follows a tiered structure of local, state, and federal government. This is also related to how emergencies occur: local communities are impacted and overwhelmed, in the case of which they call upon state resources. If, in return, states are overwhelmed, they can ask their respective federal government for assistance. For this purpose, plans are set in place, such as the US National Response Framework, which guides the governmental response to all kinds of emergencies, including pandemics. Assistance can come in the form of coordination and communication as well as resources in terms of personnel, funds, goods, or services. Emergency management structures, institutions and responsibilities can differ according to nation. EU member states, for instance, can draw upon support measures from the European Commission. On March 13, 2020 the European Commission made a related declaration for a coordinated response to counter the economic impact of Covid-19 on EU member states.
The social dimension
Local communities tend to know who is impacted by an emergency within their population. How is the susceptibility to a health or environmental or other type of risk distributed among that population? And, while pandemics are considered significant risk management challenges, are they disasters? Generally spoken, disasters are social occasions in which a hazard impacts people or things they value. Disasters lead to the disruption of everyday life and related social routines and practices. The impact of disaster can be different among different members of a community. Some individuals can be hit harder than others, and they may have differing means to cope with the disaster. The term social vulnerability is used by researchers to identify, understand and explain the reasons for differential impact and coping capacity. In the case of Covid-19 the fact has been pointed out repeatedly that age or preexisting health conditions are highly significant demographic characteristics that explain who might be hit harder than others following an infection with the virus. Further characteristics of possible relevance include income, ethnicity, gender, migration background, handicaps and other cultural circumstances, all of which inform an individual’s access to resources. Climate change also plays a role, since it can lead to an increase in frequency and intensity of adverse environmental conditions. These circumstances can be viewed through the lens of inequality and are also discussed in the context of environmental justice.
The built environment dimension
When a pandemic occurs, houses aren’t destroyed as is the case of a flood, a hurricane, a tornado or an earthquake. Yet social structures and routines may be disrupted – structures and routines that are intertwined and coexist with the built environment. Urban life is decidedly different when there are no people present in urban space or gatherings are prohibited due to public health concerns. Significant economic consequences are possible, also for architecture-as-business. In economic terms, architects play a similar role as canaries did in underground mining. Miners brought them below ground in small cages, and when the birds stopped singing, this indicated the presence of toxic gas – an alarm signal for the miners. If municipalities or clients don’t have the funds to build projects, architects notice first, and they tend to be “ahead of the curve” in terms of economic crisis. Not all architects have to agree with this characterization, depending on their business model or how diverse their portfolio is. Beyond that, there is an understanding that crises pose opportunities; whether that will be the case now remains to be seen. Yet construction can still take place when crisis occurs. In China, a hospital for Covid-19 patients was erected in a record-breaking pace and completed within an unbelievably short amount of time.
Social distancing is currently recommended to slow down the spread of infections among populations. This is, in a certain way, reminiscent of planning strategies that were developed in the USA after World War II aimed at the distribution of the population across the continental states. The intention was to minimize damage in the case of a thermo-nuclear first strike initiated by the Soviet Union. Bauhaus urban designer Ludwig Hilberseimer notably contributed to planning schemes for related self-sustaining regional settlement models.
The basis for an understanding of how disasters or emergencies such as pandemics can impact the built environment of societies is how spatial and social aspects are intertwined to mutually constitute our everyday lives. In the case of a crisis and its aftermath, the vulnerability of those impacted is the key to formulate sustainable solutions. Yet, how are architects supposed to know who is vulnerable, and how to build for them? For one, municipalities should plan for risk management with the social vulnerability of their residents in mind. While regional or spatial planners typically deal with scales far removed from individual architecture and sociologists often enough de-emphasize physical conceptualizations of space, architects, urban designers and landscape architects can contribute to a comprehensive understanding of the social and spatial aspects that constitute vulnerability in order to propose adequate approaches to risk and vulnerability reduction. In addition, the current rise in humanitarian architectural practice indicates that social or even corporate responsibility can successfully intersect with sustainability aims, risk reduction, and climate adaptation for vulnerable populations. Related design responses should go hand in glove with knowledge-based reflection.
Crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic contribute to interruptions of everyday life and related coping and adaptation practices. Normality, under these circumstances, is established by the confluence and interaction of political, social, and spatial aspects – something we tend to take for granted if everything is “OK”. At the same time, normality can be very different for different people, according to social circumstances and access to resources, which contributes to vulnerability. A crisis smashes this Gordian knot into pieces. In the case of quarantine, it collapses within itself – quite literally, since quarantine is also a very spatial circumstance. The remarkable thing is how spatial configuration and social practice can merge anew in order to cope with the impact of a crisis and emergency. Examples are singing from your apartment window to your neighbors across the street (as seen and heard in Italy) or delivering groceries to your neighbor’s doorstep (as driven by current initiatives in social media). This only works if there is proximity, albeit of a balanced sort – just enough to allow for healthy social distancing.