Throughout 2020-2021, almost in concert, governments worldwide issued three decrees of separation designed to counter the spread of the insidious COVID-19. 

The First Decree of Separation was “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place”—a kind of home detention without the ankle bracelet. Sure, you could venture outdoors but only for essential purposes, for food or exercise and only briefly. Mask wearing in delineated areas was mandatory and subject to fines for non-compliers.

The Second Decree of Separation was “social distancing”, which required one to keep a social distance of at least 1.5 metres from others. Large gatherings were outlawed and classified as super-spreader events. A kind of offensiveness evolved if people’s personal space was violated.

And, of course, The Third Decree of Separation, “get vaccinated” (or in colloquial terms, “get vaccinated or get lost”). Not to be confused with Napoleon’s infamous third decree that proclaimed all Jews guilty of chicanery.

The Third Decree of Separation was aimed at anti-vaxxers and the unvaccinated, singled out and separated from others via an array of restrictions.

And rather than nudging or positive messaging or any other form of passive persuasion, a befuddled and belligerent approach to separation was imposed.

Reshaping our life/work and the new rules of engagement

The Three Decrees of Separation are jointly reshaping our life/work: from the simple act of shaking hands and hugging to working from home and online education to using public transport and dictating where we can go and who with. Which portends to the imminent introduction of vaccine passports or visas.

Reminding one of Bob Dylan’s battle hymn of the 1960s The Times They Are a-Changin—from anti-vaxxers advocating a counterculture to a vaccinated society, to the COVID-oppressed and the overprivileged and the architects of the world of tomorrow. We’re not all in this together as the battle-weary continue to struggle with the new rules of engagement.

A fourth decree is implied but not explicitly stated

“The solution, then, is to recognise that there is an appropriate time and place for both the technology of space-enclosure and the architecture of expression, and to work to eliminate the neuter type: neither scientific nor artistic.”

Robin Boyd from his book The Australian Ugliness (1960)

Robin Boyd (1919-1971), often called Australia’s greatest architect, notes the downside of urban space built primarily on the science of utilitarianism at the expense of “visual art”—and vice versa. In the case of the former, a “knee-jerk” reaction to the pandemic might exhort such a response.

In light of an unprecedented disruption to the everyday, is the inference of a fourth decree, implied but not explicitly stated. In essence, a prompt to rethink social and spatial planning.

A new approach to socio-spatial architecture and urban planning is now a focus of debate, especially as it relates to shared public and private spaces and the health and wellbeing of the vulnerable.

So, where does such an extrapolation lead us?

This implied fourth decree raises an enduring design question: are architects and designers resigned to follow a program brief that reflects the analytical, technical, and safety requirements of the building code and the financial resources and the suppositions of the developer about how the world works; or driven, in the main, by a generic blueprint that follows a particular design paradigm?

On this, the legendary Colin Rowe’s article Program vs Paradigm (1983) remains relevant.

First, we might consider, unofficially for now but intuitively in the minds of designers and developers, that the Three Decrees of Separation might constitute an unwritten addendum to The Building Code of Australia (BCA), which “provides the minimum necessary requirements for safety, health, amenity and sustainability in the design and construction of new buildings (and new building work in existing buildings) throughout Australia”. 

The word “minimum”, it is fair to say, in consideration of the pressures exerted by the COVID-19 pandemic and an increasingly unfriendly climate, needs a critical rethink.

Moreover, apart from isolation hubs, is there a need, or desire, to create new living/working environments in response to these externalities? As Rowe inferred back in the 80s, is it time to throw out the program and the paradigm in favour of something new?

I mean, could COVID dramatically alter our urban landscape in preference for human/nature engagement over human/human engagement? 

A nexus of interdependencies

From a pragmatist’s perspective, this points to a nexus of interdependencies, comprising connectedness, compactness, aestheticism, sustainability, and now compartmentalisation as a means of containment. 

And with the global pressure of COP26 rising fast, there is increased urgency to engender a more harmonious human/environment relationship.

Reinstating the question, does the planning of urban socio-spatial form require a reimagining of the functions of ecosystem services and pandemic preparedness for human health and wellbeing? We might start by resolving the ventilation riddle.

Ventilation: a riddle to resolve

Globally, although COVID has raised the ventilation stakes, 4.2 million people die every year from exposure to ambient air pollution, and 91 per cent of the world’s population live in places where air pollution exceeds the WHO’s safety guidelines.

World Health Organization (WHO)

In contrast to airconditioning, which is about temperature and comfort, ventilation has been largely ignored until now. COVID has reinstated its importance, albeit belatedly. 

And while modern refrigerants used in airconditioning—ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) that have been mostly phased out, and current highly-potent greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—have caused major damage to the natural environment, mechanical ventilation poses a similar problem. 

Mechanical ventilation, to prevent viral transmission and remove toxins to improve air quality, particularly en masse and if made mandatory, is a high-energy user and costly to install. While natural ventilation is limited to particular climates and at certain times of the year. 

As it stands, with the onset of global warming, energy used for space cooling is growing faster than any other energy use in buildings. Between 1990 and 2016, the global demand for cooling energy tripled, accounting for about 20 per cent of the world’s total electricity consumption. 

This saw the rise of the “the energy-poor”: average household expenditure increased by 35-42 per cent with airconditioning installation—let alone mechanical ventilation.

And in many cities, the air outside is more polluted than the air inside.

Mindful also that the long-time ventilation and cooling standard in Australia’s public schools was an open window and the occasional extravagance of a ceiling fan.

Mechanical ventilation, like airconditioning, suffers from similar environmental and technical problems. Air drawn from outside needs to be conditioned (in terms of temperature) and filtered (in terms of particulate matter and airborne bio-aerosols) before replacing the stale air inside (see also a redress by Chagla et al to the latter, and also the WHO’s response).

This further accentuates the importance of transdisciplinary links between medical scientists, public health researchers, and biologists, and architects, urban planners, and designers. 

Avoiding the dysfunctional city syndrome: do we remodel and retrofit or start from scratch?

In 2018, 55 per cent of the global population resided in urban areas. By 2050, this is predicted to reach 68 per cent.

United Nations’ World Urbanization Prospects (2018)

For a long time, conscientious architects and urban planners harboured a disdain for high-density urban environments and massive concrete towers that defy the human scale. Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic has vindicated their disdain, albeit coincidentally, as high-density towers (described as “vertical cruise ships”—enclosed and compacted) proved the ideal urban form for viral transmission. 

Which, at least, calls for a reinterpretation of urban planning and, at most, a “paradigm shift”—in the frame of Thomas Kuhn’s oft-cited conception—as the pandemic exposed the dysfunctionality of our cities, rendering them intractable for prolonged periods.

Thus the fallibility of the dominant planning paradigms of our time: the New Urbanism, transit-oriented development, neotraditional planning, and various other sustainability-focused typologies that rely heavily on high-density housing, compactness, mass transit, and the fostering of social interaction. Commonalities that do not augur well with the spread of COVID and its inevitable mutations, or indeed, future Disease X events.

That is, high-density and compactness are widely accepted tenets to counter urban sprawl and climate change in the quest for sustainability. A philosophy profoundly challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic and yet to be formally acknowledged by planning authorities.

Succinctly, do we remodel and retrofit or start from scratch? Perhaps in the frame of Noble Prize-winning economist Paul Romer’s “charter cities”—a universal cure-all for the multitude of urban and socioeconomic ills—but without the sense of losing one’s autonomy or sovereignty.

So, to avoid the “dysfunctional city syndrome”—something that we have come to know too well—architects and urban planners and designers, in collaboration with research scientists and other critical lateral thinkers, need to rethink their urban planning assumptions in the context of the Three Decrees of Separation and the long-term socio-spatial implications of achieving pandemic preparedness.

Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science. He has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design, teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the UDIA (Urban Development Institute of Australia) and author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

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  1. The argument that density is not compatible with a covid-safe environment in future is a compelling but flawed hypothesis.
    For example, in the UK at the height of the pandemic in May 2020, the London borough of Islington had a much lower per capita incidence of Covid-19 than rural Cumbria:
    – Islington: 16,000 people per square km, 190 cases per 100,000
    – Cumbria: 73 people per square km, 429 cases per 100,000
    I’m afraid that the idea that ‘ high-density and compactness’ are ‘a philosophy profoundly challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic’ simply doesn’t stand up to the slightest challenge.