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How design can help curtail the spread of Covid-19

A pedestrian crossing signal with an infrared sensor in Melbourne. Source: Mengbi Li

Pandemic prevention could be improved by architectural and urban design.

Dr Mengbi Li, a lecturer at VictoriaUniversity and research fellow at Institute for Sustainable Industries and LiveableCities, travelled to various cities in China, Australia and Singapore during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Li works in the discipline of built environment at VictoriaUniversity. She told the SBS Chinese Program that in her travels, she noticed several precautions taken in the design of buildings, towns and products to protect people from catastrophes like the COVID-19 pandemic.

She strongly believes that greater communication and collaboration between countries around the world can help everyone survive the epidemic and recover in a better way.

Various strategies used in public lifts. Above left, in Melbourne; above right and below left, in Kunming; below right, in Guangzhou.
Various strategies used in public lifts. Above left, in Melbourne; above right and below left, in Kunming; below right, in Guangzhou.
Mengbi Li (top row and bottom left), Fei Zhou (bottom right)

Touch-free or touch-less designs

Dr Li told SBS that cities, towns and buildings were not originally designed to face such a serious, long-lasting and potentially resurgent pandemic. For instance, some human touch is generally required for the running of many facilities.

She said she noticed a type of infrared lift buttons in use at Baiyun airport in Guangzhou and later learned that there existed another type of lift button using holographic projection technology. 

A lift with infrared sensors at Baiyun airport in Guangzhou.
A lift with infrared sensors at Baiyun airport in Guangzhou.
Xiao Xu

Similar concepts to this have been trialled in Sydney and Melbourne for touchless traffic light buttons at road crossings.

A pedestrian crossing signal with an infrared sensor in Melbourne.
A pedestrian crossing signal with an infrared sensor in Melbourne.
Mengbi Li

Similarly in the context of the pandemic, there has to be an obvious advantage in the innovative design of a touch-free locker. As reported previously, the Bluetooth-controlled contactless locker can be operated by mobile phone.

Dr Li also highlighted a different type of hand sanitiser dispenser that she used in her Melbourne quarantine hotel. It was operated by foot peddle and required no electricity.

A touch-free hand sanitiser dispenser in Melbourne.
A touch-free hand sanitiser dispenser in Melbourne.
Mengbi Li

She said that there is much more to explore on this subject. For instance, the use of pavement textures to remind people to maintain social distance, also the use of manicured landscapes and specially designed tables and benches in rest or waiting areas to provide protective barriers, the design of containerised modular wards and testing rooms, etc.

In a nutshell, she said, pandemic prevention could be improved by non-contact or reduced-contact designs, designs that encourage social distance and can be swiftly assembled and relocated.

Landscape for keeping social distance in Melbourne.
Landscape for keeping social distance in Melbourne.
Mengbi Li

Opportunities and challenges for architectural design after the pandemic

Dr Li told SBS that how the pandemic will influence our built environment will ultimately be decided by how we view this catastrophe and how we respond.

She said: "We can either see the COVID-19 pandemic as a one-off temporary problem or use it as an opportunity to improve what exists."

"Much of the suffering will eventually be converted into a driving force for a better society, but this largely depends on how people interpret and respond to it."

For example, there are several shifts that people might adopt in shaping the post-pandemic built environment.

First, life in lockdown has, for many people, opened up new online avenues of work and communication. With the new workplace flexibility, it is quite likely that traffic congestion will decline.

Other aspects of life, such as everyday shopping or dining out can be made easier through optimised planning and urban design. With today’s acceleration of employment turnover however, it is difficult to eliminate entirely the long commute distances between home and work:

“It is a common dilemma, with our home closer to the workplace today, to find a new job tomorrow where you have to commute across the whole city to work. In this sense, workplace flexibility means less commuting, better spread over different times rather than concentrated at rush hours. Consequently, this may help relieve traffic-related problems." 

On a micro level, the home-office model will probably bring new opportunities and challenges to residential architecture.

In the modern metropolis because of the fast pace of life and work, 'home' often means a hotel-like accommodation for brief stays.

How then do we make our homes, the biggest investment in most people’s lives, into a place sufficiently well-appointed to accommodate longer stays? In practice, the pandemic lockdown has provided us with an exceptional opportunity to appreciate our home environment.

Unfortunately in many circumstances, we realise that the home we currently occupy is not right for long stays. For instance, during the pandemic you may have heard complaints about poor sound insulation through partition walls, making concentrating on work difficult with noise coming from the next room. A simple solution to this can be to place the built-in wardrobes between bedrooms or change the construction materials used in partition walls.

In many new apartments, space is kept to a bare minimum. How can we expect compact rooms hardly able to fit a bed, to provide enough space to work, study and ideally exercise for months on end, as in a pandemic lockdown?

Mengbi states that when a home takes on a parallel roles, its design becomes challenging and very interesting. 

Another consideration is indoor and outdoor living.

Access to sunlight and fresh air are essential to anybody’s physical and psychological wellbeing, especially in lockdown.

If some open-air spaces can be inserted into buildings, then a number of activities or exercises can be conducted in the open air without necessarily exiting the building. In this way, a building can provide more shelter, both physically and psychologically during a pandemic.

Not only buildings but cities too can provide smartly arranged green open spaces. Thus every community can expect to access quality green open space.

Dr Li also commented that 'wet markets', can be popular but problematic features in many urban areas, demanding particular attention in both urban and architectural design.

"No matter how spectacular a city's luxury buildings, when there is a problem with the wet market, it concerns everybody. No matter how opulent the city, when something goes wrong with its public housing or nursing homes, the whole city grinds to a halt."  

Improved resilience through collaboration and communication

Dr Li said Australia was well placed to prevent the COVID-19 outbreak. First as a vast and sparsely populated country with good air quality and excellent public health facilities, then as a multicultural country with a natural ability to communicate and collaborate between regions on common challenges.

Some Australian cities do have high density however, and the tendency is for this to increase further. While in theory high density is conducive to an efficient deployment of public facilities and fosters urban vitality, in terms of epidemic control, it seems to be a weakness.

As for air quality, there have been concerns raised about the air circulation in buildings by reports into the airborne spread of the COVID-19 virus. In some residential and office buildings, especially where there is crowding, some rooms lack proper access to fresh air.

She said, "I think every lesson in fighting and containing the pandemic was acquired at a heavy cost, so I really hope that there will be greater exchange, communication, sharing of experience and collaboration between countries and regions."

"Each one of us has experienced this shared catastrophe. I trust, if we can draw the right conclusions and pool our wisdom and goodwill, that it will ultimately leave a memorable legacy for 21st century humanity as a whole."


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