Cursed Coffee Bike Shop outside St. Louis

The Future of Being Social

The days immediately following shelter-in-place orders across the country were uniquely transformative. Restaurants pivoted to curbside pick-up and delivery. Most Starbucks shuttered their doors. The panic among those craving a white paper cup with cardboard sleeve was palpable. “Does anyone know of a Starbucks that’s still open?” social media posts cried out.

 Meanwhile, a couple of blocks down the street from my home, the neighborhood guy with the bike repair and coffee shop—what seemed like a crazy, incongruous concept when he opened a few years prior—still operated. Jeff told me over the phone, “I’m considered an essential business because I do bicycle repair.” His employees carefully complied with CDC guidelines, donning masks and gloves and moving coffee transactions to a folding table immediately outside his front door. Within less than a week, I watched a growing stream of people walking up the street from his shop, coffees in hand. The owner adapted his business practices. Jeff adapted his space needs. And people adapted to find comfort in their daily ritual of store-brewed coffee. 

During this pandemic we have rightfully relied on epidemiologists and virologists, government officials and the media to inform us of the risks that we’re facing. Yet our own personal perceptions of risk vary among us, and even evolve over time. And while in-person socialization may look a little different when we emerge in a post-COVID-19 world, it is not going away. We will be coming together again. Our ability to adapt to new circumstances is a human trait. 


Past crises help illustrate how fear dissipates as we internalize the probability of a new risk impacting us, and as we adapt both behaviorally and mentally to new factors in our daily lives. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, nearly 20 percent of the nation reported clinical symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTSD). The fears around the unpredictability of violent terrorism ran high: people were afraid to fly, afraid to work in tall buildings. Just six months later, the number of people reporting symptoms of PTSD dropped to less than 6 percent of the population. People adapted to new security measures at airports and began boarding airplanes again. They returned to work, tall-building design became safer, and we erected more skyscrapers than ever before. 

Behavioral psychologists who have studied human response to large-scale crises have found that feelings of self-efficacy—or one’s ability to weather challenges successfully—can even grow in a post-crisis period. In the case of the current pandemic, data is already proving that measures which reintroduce a sense of control over one’s health and safety, such as social distancing and mask-wearing, empower people to re-engage with their communities. Wearing a face mask in public while carrying on a commercial transaction or even a casual conversation would have been completely bizarre in this country only months ago; today it’s commonplace. 

The built environment is similarly resilient. Our ability to adapt and be resourceful in the face of change along with the inherent adaptability of the designed environment have allowed us to carry on with life in radical new ways. During the height of the pandemic, dramatic examples of adaptation in the built environment abounded: convention centers, soccer stadiums, and recreation centers were converted to testing and treatment centers. But we have adapted our environments in more prosaic ways too: our homes have become our offices. Our parks and open green spaces have become the agoras of our communities—not only places of respite from the onslaught of daily Zooms and homeschooling, but the physical (and original) twin to the digital exchange—places of information that make us feel connected to each other.


This kind of coming together in our city’s parks and public places over the last several months—even at an appropriate social distance—fulfills an inherent human need to be social. The sidewalk conversations with neighbors replace the water cooler talk in the office. Those interactions satiate an innate desire to connect with one another. And those connections are more than informational: they afford us the opportunity to learn how others are dealing with new situations, to gauge our range of emotions against those of others and help us feel normal. 

Positive societal impact from crisis is measurable. Behavioral psychologists have documented the growth of community cohesion in the face of major crises on par with today’s pandemic. The sense of “we’re all in this together” lessens the fears and anxieties that crisis can bring on. Pride swells in communities, particularly for those who help us all feel safer. During the current pandemic, healthcare workers are recognized as heroic for their willingness to risk their lives to keep us all safer. 

Underlying this community cohesion is the notion of a social contract in which we’re all responsible for each other’s health through our individual actions. Carrying this attitude forward into the future as the rate of infection declines will be important. Ultimately, our need to come together will dovetail with declining rates of transmission. Social spaces will be reactivated not just because of pent-up demand for interaction, but also because of the implied social contract built upon shared responsibility for each other.


Even as experts warn of a second wave of infections, the shockwaves to our personal, business, community azomnd societal systems will be less dramatic if it does occur. Why? We have already developed the coping mechanisms to deal with a major public health crisis at each of these scales. In a sense, Covid-19 was training for the next pandemic. 

Being adaptive means anticipating disruption. Human beings are inherently hardwired to be adaptive, and our best buildings are intentionally designed ready to anticipate change and disruption. At an urban scale, this resilience is demonstrated best by ancient cities that continue to be inhabited. Many of the oldest are in the Middle East—think Baghdad, Aleppo, and Jerusalem. One has only to imagine the millennia of conflict these cities have endured to think about the universal design principles that have allowed them to survive: density, mixed uses, public spaces for social interaction, and the repurposing of old structures for new uses. 

These principles apply at the building scale, too. Enduring materials, flexible spaces, multiple uses within a single structure, and a diversity of spatial scales to accommodate different types of interaction are ultimately qualities that equip a building to endure crises and even wholesale societal shifts and still be relevant for use and habitation. And, as these buildings do so, their cultural value only grows with their demonstrated resilience, making them more meaningful to us as they sustain themselves. 


The current moment has inspired a proliferation of ideas that will transform our built environment to respond to this and future public health crises: better mechanical ventilation, technology that supports contactless architecture, sophisticated monitoring systems that provide data on everything from body temperature to building occupant density. We will see the rise of the industrial hygienist as we consider how clean our shared environments need to be. 

All of these ideas push us toward a singular shared goal: coming back together. Social interaction is essential to innovation. We come together to generate new ideas and stimulate creativity. It is essential to educating future generations. We come together to play, to make music, to be entertained, to find love, to socialize. British drink historian Anastasia Miller even predicts that we will see-saw to a kind of “mega-socialization” in the post-Covid era. These things all play out on a public stage, and that stage is the designed environment. Our lives depend on it. 

Featured image by the author. 


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