Turn the norm (not a return to norm)

By Monica Hutton, Urban designer


When lockdowns and stay-at-home orders began to respond to Covid-19, so did questions of when things can “return to normal”. This line of questioning attempts to untether and separate a pre-virus, present virus, and desired post-virus condition. It holds a problematic premise that if we could somehow get back to the way things were, then we could move beyond the devastating events and present discomforts. In recent months we have heard from across the medical field that there are strong correlations between pre-existing health conditions and the capacity of human bodies to overcome the effects of Covid-19. This raises a critical point about our relationship to time – that pre-existing conditions are thoroughly and inextricably entangled with present conditions and future outcomes. 


There is not a finite end to the virus in sight, suggesting a need to think critically about our relationship to time moving forward. This is a relationship that has already been disrupted across the world, although in vastly different ways from each perspective. For those in positions to isolate and shelter-in-place, the pace may have slowed with a lack of work or previous plans cancelled and postponed. Others, such as parents working from home, will have taken on additional responsibilities related to the education and care of their children. Many have had to shift into overdrive, notably the frontline workers for which the pace has never been so demanding. Regardless, schedules and freedoms of movement have been interrupted in ways that have opened us all up to think about time differently.


As much as the present conditions may rightfully feel out of control, people are also tuned into an almost real-time relationship with graphs and calls from government leaders to help actively “flatten the curve”. Creatives have been meeting across various digital platforms to discuss and debate what the role of design is, immediately and over the long-term. We can already point to countless countermeasures emerging in response to the pandemic, as new formats of communication, domestic hybridity, and decentralized supply chains suggest how we could live with alternate schedules, value systems, and balances moving forward. Some designers have jumped into practical and actionable responses: prototypes for immediate aid; flipping the production of makerspaces to PPE; sharing expertise with health experts. Other practices have taken this time to explore the speculative capacities of architecture, seeing value in projecting possible futures at a time when physical construction has slowed. Others are digging back through research to revisit alternate approaches to what got us here, and to bring forward precedents of design movements that have come out of past crises. Many are operating in a middle ground between these various modes. A cross-cutting question for all architects and designers: what pre-existing conditions in the built environment make this time unequally challenging to live in, and how can design lead us to more equitable futures?  


Beyond the scale of individual biological bodies, there are underlying factors, in both urban and rural environments, that amplify affect and disproportionately spread burdens of consequence. The modification of landscapes, buildings, and habitats that has occurred over centuries – through the expropriation of land, construction processes, and the formation of codes and policies – forms the social, political, and economic predispositions of our environments. When met with the force of a pandemic, a hurricane, a flood, a wildfire, or a combination of these crises, shortcomings in care, and inequalities of access, exposure, and distribution are heightened. These are the existing cracks and fissures that we need to tend to with timely and thoughtful care.

This is not a time to shy away from environmental concerns. It is a time to recognize that the current challenges are tangled up within a complex set of crises in the built environment that preceded the appearance of Covid-19, and will continue to live with us. Responsibility does not simply fall on an isolated group or geography, leaving others to move on untouched. We need to address where changes can be situated to move towards more equitable futures. The response to the pandemic to date is evidence of the capacity of collective efforts to face a crisis that is taken seriously. Instead of returning to comfortable habits that have contributed to the current conditions, turn the norm is a call to take this time of interruption as an opportunity to reset how we choose to affectively step back into the streets, workplaces, and social spaces. This requires ensuring that we do not become more divided in the process, and instead turn this time of isolation into a force of collective change.