Designs For Apartness

A new guide interprets the spatial implications of virology studies.

By Haniya Rae

Widening sidewalks and prioritizing protected bike lanes offer more outdoor public and commercial space. Image courtesy Lewis/Nordenson/Tsurumaki/Lewis.

At the outset of the pandemic, it didn’t take long for anyone to realize that it would have a major impact on cities. Given the breadth of scientific studies published since March, Paul Lewis, a principal of LTL Architects, and Guy Nordenson, a structural engineer and partner at Guy Nordenson and Associates, both in Manhattan, sought to translate the peculiarities of COVID-19 contagion into visual concepts. “We were getting a lot of different news articles and we wanted more clarity,” Lewis says. “Cities can’t have collective gathering. What does that mean? We wanted to envision immediate responses that could also lead to longer-term benefits for the city.”

The Manual of Physical Distancing, which Lewis and Nordenson created with the architects (and Lewis’s office partners) Marc Tsurumaki and David J. Lewis, provides an axonometric overview of indoor and outdoor spaces as they currently are, then on subsequent pages removes and alters sections to show better design for the pandemic. Few of the suggestions in the manual for outdoor spaces are shocking: Expanding sidewalks, removing parking lanes, and adding protected bike lanes have been suggested to cities for years. But these items come in direct conflict with commercial spaces, which may continue to expand outward onto sidewalks as indoor spaces remain less safe.

“One of the really interesting and emerging models or changing paradigms is the status of the difference between interior and exterior,” Lewis says. “It’s very clear that the novel coronavirus occurs less frequently outdoors. If what you can do inside can be online and move outside, it will. The point is not to think about the binary of interior and exterior.”

Among the things Lewis suggests are multiple Wi-Fi hubs and charging stations in public parks so that workers, or even students, can use the outdoors as an office or study space. Streets closed to traffic could be painted with patterns that cause cars to slow while also designating the six feet of space that’s necessary between bodies. Sports courts and playgrounds can also serve as a space for vendors—say, farmers’ markets or food stalls, or congregations. Concrete barriers could double as benches in converted parking lanes.

The ways in which this pandemic will change present-day dense cities are still uncertain, but Lewis believes they will put pressure on officials to develop better pedestrian and cycling spaces.

Just because cities are dense doesn’t mean it’s not solvable: “To say density is bad and a lack of density is good is a false binary,” Lewis says. “Is density a contributing factor to the pandemic? Yes. But it can be controlled.”

To view the manual, visit

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