Rethinking Connectivity

Physical Distancing ≠ Social Distancing

Physical distancing is difficult for a reason; over many thousands of years, humans have evolved to rely on social networks for practical and emotional needs. Through biological and chosen families we create an expansive network of connections that makes us feel wanted and keeps us safe. But the global pandemic has forced us to dismantle these essential networks to ensure our survival. This creates a unique dilemma:

How can we foster the human connections that are so vital to our well-being while maintaining physical distance?

Further confusing the issue, the term we use to define our need to isolate—social distancing—falsely implies that COVID-19 has robbed us of our social connections. In fact, we still have the tools to connect, whether physically distant or not. We have an expansive virtual network at our disposal that allows us to feel connected to our biological and chosen families—to our communities.

Even with access to this virtual network, there remains a tug-of-war between distance and connection that raises important questions for the built environment. As architects, we design spaces that maximize physical human interactions: offices encourage collaboration; parks and plazas invite gathering; schools and campuses maximize activity. We “activate” and “energize” these spaces to encourage community. As the pandemic continues, however, it’s clear the coronavirus will have a lasting impact on the ways we think about space. Distancing, whether by mandate or preference, will likely continue into the foreseeable future.

Going forward, designers will have to balance the need for human connection with the necessity of physical distance. As we adapt to this new reality, what does designing within these parameters look like?

“In architecture, one of the primary things you learn is to look and see, to notice and carefully analyze what you see and what you sense. Now is the time to really reflect on resiliency, desirability, and accessibility. We’ll be considering the options of spatial experiences,” Principal Peter Cavaluzzi, who led the winning competition team for the innovative Port Authority Bus Terminal project in New York. “Both the city and suburbs can offer useful, beneficial lifestyles; technology has allowed both of them to thrive. It’s different than 30 years ago, when we didn’t have all of the communication, transportation, and delivery choices that we do now. Cities need to compete and stay relevant by designing amazing urban places and buildings that make city life so desirable. This will continue to attract people and provide the flexibility and adaptability that creates safety.”

Loneliness and Belonging

To better understand the psychological toll of the current crisis, we spoke with Maureen Brine, an RN psychotherapist and sought after global speaker, workshop presenter, and trainer, and Jennifer Shields, a registered social worker at The Healing Collective in Toronto. Maureen and Jennifer shared insights into the nature of loneliness and the impact of isolation on our mental and physical health. From their research and experience, we learned that physical distancing isn’t necessarily the source of our loneliness—but it could heighten feelings of loneliness that already existed.

Though social isolation has left many of us feeling extra lonely, the “epidemic of loneliness” in the United States predated the current health crisis. A 2019 study by Cigna found that 61 percent of Americans feel lonely—an increase of 7 percent since 2018—resulting from inadequate social support, lack of meaningful social interactions, poor physical and mental health, and a lack of work-life balance as key drivers.

Maureen emphasized the negative impact of loneliness on mental and physical health, noting that “in some studies, lack of connection and loneliness are as harmful as obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure.”

While physical distancing might exacerbate our loneliness problem, it is not the only factor at play. Jennifer and Maureen explained that there is an important distinction between loneliness and being alone. Loneliness is a consequence of feeling emotionally distant and harboring negative emotions about ourselves, and may occur independently of our physical closeness to other people.

“People feel lonely when they don’t feel worthy, when they don’t feel confident,” says Jennifer. Ultimately, Maureen notes, “people want to feel like they belong.” If the key to combating loneliness lies in cultivating a sense of belonging, creating meaningful connections can be virtual as well as physical; it’s all about the quality of connection. Maureen says, “The relationships we have in our lives determine the quality of our lives.”

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, we asked how designers can create spaces that support meaningful, high-quality interactions while taking measures to support public health and safety. Virtual placemaking—combining elements of the virtual and physical realms to build community and belonging—may become a useful strategy in helping counteract loneliness created by physical distancing, even loneliness problems that existed before the pandemic.

With this in mind, could physical distancing actually be an opportunity to radically innovate the way we design collaborative spaces, spaces that could even combat loneliness, which is endemic in our society?

And, if so, how can virtual strategies help to enhance our sense of connection and belonging?


Virtual Placemaking

So, what does virtual placemaking look like and how can we use it?

Peter Cavaluzzi emphasizes that technology is key. “In some ways, we have learned that we can be extremely mobile and still have the connectedness that we want and need for daily life. Technology has given people many more choices than they have ever had before.”

Virtual placemaking is already in effect throughout the country. In Chattanooga, TN, a nonprofit called The Enterprise Center, together with the University of Tennessee, has enhanced the public digital network by partnering with the local utility company, EBP, to create 27 new sites with “drive-up” Wi-Fi in places like schools, community centers, and low income housing. To direct people to these placemakers, they created a public Wi-Fi Map.

The Enterprise Center shows how increasing technological infrastructure is a prime factor in virtual placemaking. By expanding the city’s network, they can invite more people online and enable them to connect with family, friends, and loved ones.

Across the Atlantic, dancers in Amsterdam utilized the city’s empty streets to perform and record an outdoor ballet. Streaming their performance online for free, the dancers gave new life and purpose to a city lacking its regular bustle. Their performance demonstrates a new way to look at city spaces; how to make them beautiful, dynamic, and activated without the movement and flow of people. For example, when a sculpture is installed in a public space, it is meant to draw people to it; its stasis becomes a beacon for community. But when the city itself is in stasis, art must come alive.

Events like this can happen in the United States as well. Virtual performances like this could add vibrancy during this time in public spaces like The District Wharf in Washington, D.C., or the TKTS Booth in Father Duffy Square, within Times Square.

Virtual placemaking strategies are also being implemented to jumpstart local economies. In Owosso, MI, and other communities, residents are playing virtual games like “physical distancing bingo” with a scavenger hunt twist. Cards contain a myriad of activities like “order take-out from a local restaurant,” “purchase a piece of art from a local artist,” and “stream a workout from a local gym or studio.” These activities promote community engagement and bring revenue to small, local businesses.

New Opportunities

With experts warning of a second wave of infections in the fall, physical distancing is not going away any time soon. But neither will our opportunities for connectivity. The novel coronavirus has made us aware of just how lonely we may have been before, but the past few months have already shown that humans have a tremendous capacity to adapt.

Moving forward, we must look for ways to creatively leverage our virtual and physical resources to build meaning, combat loneliness, and create connection in a post-pandemic world.