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Whether we like it or not, COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere. With many countries slowly starting to ease lockdown measures, beginning to grapple with what living alongside the virus could look like, a number of designers and manufactures have joined the chorus of voices shaping what socially distanced cities, restaurants and offices may become. From sidewalks to schools and piazzas to playgrounds, here are five visions of a future set two metres apart.

1
Hospitality

Though the service industry was dealt a significant blow in the early days of nation-wide lockdowns, a new toolkit devised by David Rockwell of New York-based Rockwell Group looks to help restaurants in one of America’s busiest (and most affected) urban centres safely re-open post-pandemic.

“We have been in discussion with restaurant operators and staff, and the New York City Hospitality Alliance about creating spaces that help jump-start business [and allow] diners to feel safe and comfortable,” he explains.

Rockwell’s Open Streets solution — consisting of a sanitation and service station, fencing, a dining booth (with or without an umbrella) and wooden decking panels — capitalizes on vacant sidewalks and streets to extend interior dining spaces and ensure adequate social distancing. “We’re utilizing designs and materials that can be adapted to reflect the diversity of the city,” Rockwell says. The customizable measures are offered in five options that range in price and scale.

The designer and his team have also produced a series of plans exploring how their system could be implemented in a variety of contexts, starting with a number of “test fits” for existing restaurants in the city. “Our solution,” he concludes, “offers a template for outdoor dining — an adaptable kit-of-parts accommodating a range of restaurants and street conditions.”

2
Corporate

“Office centricity is over,” Tobi Lutke, CEO of the Canadian e-commerce company, declared on his personal Twitter in late May. “As of today, Shopify is a digital-by-default company.” Lutke’s comments join a chorus of similar declarations arguing that the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic (and the mass migration to working from home) will erode the very idea of the office. Yet, a recent Gensler study, titled the U.S. Work From Home Survey 2020, found that only 12 per cent of the employees surveyed wished to continue working remotely. Overwhelmingly, employees desired to return to the office — but not without significant changes.

American manufacturer Steelcase has released a new set of guidelines called Navigating What’s Next: The Post-COVID Workplace. The 30-page document is divided into three zones of implementation — now, near and far — corresponding to three broad strategies for the future: “retrofitting, reconfiguring and reinventing the workplace to create offices that are as safe as possible.” Alongside planning considerations that prioritize increased distance, solutions such as movable partitions, height-adjustable designs and panel-based workstations are presented in a range of new post-COVID constellations.

In addition, the guide includes strategies for assembling ancillary spaces with dividers, screens and generously spaced seating – as well as ample storage for personal protective equipment.

3
Education

The great work-from-home experiment has precipitated another formidable test: that of e-learning. With schools closing their doors and universities rapidly moving courses online, parents, teachers and students alike are eager (and equally cautious) to wade into the future of the classroom. But what might a post-pandemic school look like? London-based Curl la Tourelle Head Architecture may have an idea.

Concerned about the ability to ensure safe distances in existing educational spaces throughout the U.K., Curl la Tourelle Head proposes converting tent-like structures – like those commonly used as pop-up venues at festivals – into classrooms, washrooms, sanitizing stations and even a staff room. The concept would see the “transferring of a proportion of teaching provision into temporary structures,” says Wayne Head, the firm’s director. Together with his team, he has planned a number of potential configurations using a circle or ovoid layout.

“This is by no means our answer to what classrooms should look like in the future,” Head adds. “We wanted to use this as a catalyst for further discussions, to rethink how schools can be designed and used beyond COVID-19.”

4
Public Space
PHOTO: Francesco Noferini

From British designer Paul Cocksedge’s social distancing picnic blanket to the white circles painted on the grass of parks in New York, Toronto and more, there’s been no shortage of design interventions exploring what public spaces may look like as we slowly begin to re-occupy these communal sites. In Italy, a country devastated by the pandemic, Caret Studio has proposed a more subtle, yet equally striking, proposal for inhabiting public space as intensive lockdown measures subside. 

PHOTO: Francesco Noferini

StoDistante, a series of graphic white squares adorning the cobblestone streets of the small Tuscan town of Vicchio, turns the recommended two-metre distance between individuals into a chessboard-like grid or “safe gradient” that directs movement through Piazza Giotto. “StoDistante is a design strategy applied for the first time in Viccho,” says the studio, led by Matteo Chelazzi, Federico Cheloni and Giulio Margheri, “but with the potential to be deployed in different public areas. The idea is to create a temporary infrastructure for a new social life.”

5
Recreation

Many of us are now all too familiar with the electric yellow caution tape ensnaring monkey bars, swing sets and many other forms of playground equipment. While these communal spaces are crucial for children in developing interpersonal bonds and social skills, they are also prime vehicles for the proliferation of the virus. In response, Berlin-based designer Martin Binder teamed up with psychologist Claudio Rimmele to devise Rimbin: an “infection-free playground where children can play, talk and laugh together without risking the spread of COVID-19.” 

The conceptual playscape consists of modular circular platforms in three typologies (a sand pit, a tower and a plinth) that take inspiration from the forms of tropical lilies. Each consists of a small individual entrance, elevated path and main play area surrounded by protective fins. This low enclosure allows children to connect, communicate and see one another from afar, while also providing parents room to keep a watchful eye from a distance. In addition, each of the three designs features a unique interactive game. Connecting the adaptable elements, which can be reconfigured to suit occupancy needs or site requirements, “speaking tubes” link the platforms – allowing kids to amplify their voices while maintaining a safe distance.

“Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many parents are faced with the decision: Visit a playground or avoid it?” Binder and Rimmele say. “The aim of Rimbin is to develop a conceptual playworld that enables children to continue to enjoy exciting and inspiring encounters — even after the pandemic. The concept also encourages long-term rethinking of playgrounds in cities.”

5 Visions for a Socially Distanced Future

From sidewalks to schools and piazzas to playgrounds, here are five visions of a future set two metres apart.

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