Architecture, design and public health: U-M experts can discuss
As the U.S. economy cautiously reopens in the wake of COVID-19, artists, architects and urban planners at the University of Michigan whose work intersects with public health offer ideas and insight on how we might design for the future.
Upali Nanda is an associate professor of practice in architecture at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. She is also the director of research for HKS Inc., a global architectural firm, and serves as the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Advanced Design Research and Evaluation. Nanda’s research focuses on connections between the built environment and human health.
“The pandemic requires us to redesign not just our spaces, but our systems. The built environment has to be seen as a stage on which the theater of life takes place. It plays a pivotal role, but that role cannot be leveraged without a deep understanding of the interplay of policy, public health and place,” said Nanda, who also teaches at the School of Public Health. “For decades health had lived in the domain of health care architecture, the pandemic has revealed that health is a foundational concern for all typologies.
“On a tactical level, the industry is beginning to see some immediate shifts—real estate reorganization in the workplace, a long overdue investment in healthy air and healthy buildings, a rethinking of the density of our cities and our buildings. The risk we run as a design community is to react rather than respond as a coalition, across the design continuum—from how we design information and products to how we design buildings and cities.
“COVID has also revealed fundamental inequities in how we design our systems and our cities. The challenge today is around how we hold human, environmental and economical goals synergistically. Resilience in designing for business and life continuity, by designing for communities rather than individuals may be a key aspect of that.”
Joy Knoblauch, an assistant professor of architecture at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, researches the history and theory of architecture as an exploration of architecture’s engagement with politics and science. She teaches architectural design, architectural and urban theory and criticism and health infrastructure.
“We are seeing a flowering of some avant garde solutions to COVID-19 transmission, though these may be more useful for whimsy than public health,” she said. “Members of the design community have already started to critique these ideas. For building guidelines, we have seen a movement to draft and disseminate best practices by groups such as the International WELL Building Institute. Their guidelines consider many dimensions, including humidity levels and mental resilience of occupants.
“In comparison to tuberculosis or AIDS, it’s very early to say what the longer-term spatial and cultural legacy will be. But it seems COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory phenomena, and initial studies seem to suggest that air conditioning is a contributing factor to transmission. I think we will see calls to ‘make architecture ventilate again.’ But we have also seen advice that the virus does fall to the floor, and remarks that one does not need to ‘clean upward.’
“I would also note that the WHO has suggested we abandon the term social distancing in reference to public health and use physical distancing instead. The term social distance has a longer history in race and class relations that should not be invoked if we wish to promote solidarity.”
Robert Adams is director of the U-M Initiative on Disability Studies and an associate professor at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and Stamps School of Art & Design. His teaching and research focus areas are architectural design, disability culture, and health infrastructure.
“There are concepts that you hear all of the time—’civic space’ or the ‘commons,’ which are deeply seeded ideas in the urban imaginary. When people think of the commons, a lot of people think of it as a space where everyone can gather regardless of their identity, belief system or values—it’s where we share, exchange goods, debate ideas. But the reality is, this idea of the commons has historically been used as a way to qualify and disqualify people who are allowed to be in it,” he said. “There has been a lot of conversation about this related to the pandemic and the inequities that it has highlighted. A lot of this has been perpetuated by architecture, and it absolutely needs to be addressed.
“On a different note, the performative demands that we place upon ourselves can be really oppressive and not very equitable, so I am always thinking about mental health as it relates to space. Part of my research is connected to how to help organizations destress themselves, so that people can move from frenetic production—doing things, meeting deadlines—to working on things that matter to them most, which benefits an organization as a whole. Moving forward, we need to think about the design of spaces for mental health and wellness. These are our ‘safe spaces’—everyone has an idea in mind of what that might look like, but if there aren’t physical spaces carved out for these types of things, they won’t persist.”
John Marshall is a designer, educator and creative technologist who is interested in the new ecologies created by the intersection of objects, tangible interaction and networks. He is an associate professor at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and Stamps School of Art & Design and founding director of the Stamps MDes Integrative Design program.
“The only certainty we have at present is that ‘business-as-usual’ is not fit for purpose,” he said. “There has been widespread speculation that the majority of cognitive workers, the ones most well-positioned to work from home during the current crisis, will not return to working in the office. So, perhaps the most significant challenge to the design of new office buildings at least is—do we even need them?
“We have been living with a set of assumptions and expectations that are not at all consistent with the finite resources actually available to us. There is an opportunity in the current collapse of our existing models. As we develop new systems and protocols we have the opportunity to bake-in what we want to be the next normal. We know there will be further rounds of stimulus funding and those with the means have already got lobbyists, resources, money, coalitions and networks lining up to take advantage of it.
“We need a broader coalition to be ready to build the social, regulatory, political and financial systems we want on the other side of this. But only if we are able and willing to look beyond ourselves, the status quo and the short term. Buildings are the least of our concerns.”
Roshanak Mehdipanah is an assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the School of Public Health. She is an urban health researcher with a focus on housing as a determinant of health and leads several projects in this area including health evaluations of housing policies on affordability and discrimination within the U.S.
Her work centers on urban renewal, housing and policies aimed at eliminating health inequalities. She is a mentor with the Health Cities certificate program at Taubman, which seeks to provide students with the competencies needed to engage in cross-disciplinary collaborations among public health workers, policymakers and city planners to promote human health in urban contexts.
“Now, more than ever, public health and urban planning must collaborate to ensure cities are designed and built in equitable and inclusive ways,” she said. “COVID-19 has shed light on the existing inequities in our cities, neighborhoods and homes, with communities of color being disproportionately affected in this country, and that is largely due to the disinvestment and lack of resources in these neighborhoods. We must ensure that communities stay intact so cities do not lose their diversity and residents are not displaced.”
Robert Goodspeed, an assistant professor of urban planning at Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, is an expert in the use of scenarios to make long-term decisions about urban land use, transportation and public infrastructure. His work takes into account uncertainties like economic and population growth and climate change. His recent book, “Scenario Planning for Cities and Regions: Managing and Envisioning Uncertain Futures,” provides the first comprehensive account of this method.
“Essentially, scenario planning is a tool that helps decision makers anticipate uncertain forces in the future,” he said. “Local governments, nonprofit groups and other organizations do not have the luxury of waiting to see what the rate of infection from COVID-19 will be in a year or how the economic impacts will play out. They need to act now, and yet their decisions will have consequences for years to come. While my book focuses on the use of scenarios in urban planning, there is also a strong tradition of using scenarios in the fields of public health and emergency management to prepare for things such as global pandemics.”