WORK FROM STREETS

WHY NOT?

Author, German Bahamon

May 27th, 2020

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is difficult to control the sense of uncertainty and anxiety when we will return to "normal"; but after thinking about it, we begin to realize that we were not living in a normal way. We are now facing a great challenge, which is to build new normality by adapting to new changes. Nature seems to be reclaiming its place before us, evidencing the vulnerability of humanity. This is a time when we are all being challenged to be resilient and to think about how we will live soon. 

As an architect and urban designer, I join the challenge, by addressing multiple solutions and ideas that can help and facilitate human beings to adapt to changes, focusing on the well-being of us all, as part of a community, rather than individual well-being. 

We have seen how leading economies around the world have failed to control the effects of the pandemic. The United States has been the most affected country in the world, with nearly 100,000 deaths, and New York City has been the epicenter in this case, with at least 28,500 victims, surpassing entire nations such as France, Spain, and Brazil.

The labor field is one of the most affected by the virus and the economic crisis that this pandemic has caused all over the world. The unemployment rate in the United States reached 14.7%, with 20.5 million jobs lost in April, which is the highest rate since the Great Depression. We have a probably blurred view of reality, as the labor market changed so fast that the real statistics cannot keep up.

Governments and most businesses are struggling with these unemployment rates, making every effort to minimize costs to protect employees, implementing strategies such as reducing wages, transitioning from full-time to part-time work, working on-site once a week, and extensive telecommuting.

But these strategies not only impact employees but also companies and offices as insufficient workspaces since the 6-foot social distancing breaks every spatial proportion. This encourages organizations to implement strategies such as those mentioned above, relying heavily on telecommuting, which, although complex, has allowed them to withstand the changes in a certain way, putting themselves under a global and forced test of effectiveness, opening the doors to a more "virtually connected" society. But how positive is this movement? As with mobile phones, technology is once again becoming something very striking for us and promises us absolute immersion in it, taking us much further away from any social approach or interaction.

Even the task of working from home sounds easy, as you can sit comfortably in your living room or desk with a cup of coffee and meet your team through a teleconference, as you no longer need to put on your heels or shoes to go to work. Now the requirements are the internet service needed, along with a table, a chair, and a computer.

As an architect and urban designer, I ask myself, how can I positively contribute to new normality? Bearing in mind the equity and welfare of employees, unemployed people, businesspersons, entrepreneurs and offices of the future, and while also seeking to generate additional value for the whole city and citizens, I think for example, about the equal distribution of the Internet to all people as a fundamental tool to cope with the world that is ahead of us. And this is where the intention of this article comes in, as I want to inspire and encourage architects and urban designers so that, together, we think outside the box to explore solutions. It is not enough to widen sidewalks for more people to walk by or to expand the streets for more bicycles.

I have been a resident of New York City for a couple of years. I am Colombian, but I have a great appreciation for this city, and this quarantine has been a challenge for me and my wife. It has been very stressful for both of us. She works in the financial field, and the economic crisis is increasingly tense, and in my case, the uncertainty drains me at night, when I think about the world, where we are heading, and how we will live in the future, which, by the way, will be the one that my one-year-old daughter, a fundamental part of my life, who has taught me a lot about adapting in times of quarantine, will experience. Being aware of her ongoing care has pushed us to be flexible in responding to our meetings in turns, without neglecting the baby.

For example, on one occasion, my daughter was asleep in the bedroom of our house, my wife was videoconferencing in the living-dining room, and in order not to interrupt either of them with a call I received, the only alternative I had, taking into account the reduced space of the apartment, was to go out into public space. Immediately, after my meeting, and to prove the role that public space can play in this crisis, I started the first sketch of the idea, a public workstation for citizens, where the well-known "work from home" or "telecommuting" can be transformed into "work from the street", "work from the park", or "work from public space".

This urban facility would work as a tool for both the public and private sector, with the opportunity to occupy public parking lots of New York City managed by the Department of Transportation (DOT), considering that, the overall dimensions of one of these parking lots are 8ft x 18ft, providing the opportunity to maintain a social distance of 6ft by locating three urban desks with three plugs that can be connected to electricity, which can be supplied by solar energy, and additionally, having free internet coverage provided by public buildings such as libraries, museums, and other institutions.

Implementation Strategies

Work Station in front of the New York Public Library, West 42nd St, facing East.

Another alternative can be linked to the development of the 5G infrastructure, responding to the need for more repeaters that could be linked to these workstations for greater coverage of the Internet service in our cities, and besides, generate an economic boost to the DOT and the resources of the city, thus contributing to the welfare of citizens and improving the quality of life. However, this will be an issue to think about and plan very carefully, since New York City has been facing a dispute to carry out 5G technology. This is something similar to what happened in Geneva, where its implementation was vetoed until the World Health Organization (WHO) manages to demonstrate and guarantee that it will not affect people's health, thus being a new fight between technology and health protection among us.

This is another appealing option for the private sector since it answers the question of how to place the same amount of staff in an office in compliance with the new regulations on social distancing, giving employees the option of having one of these "workstations" near their places of residence, contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gases and improving the quality of the environment, since the use of transport would be reduced, and the money used on some occasions as a transport allowance can be reused in other areas.

Example of how a private company can rent a parking spot for its employees in Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY.

Another factor to consider, is the social and psychological impact on ordinary citizens since this idea seeks to promote an even healthier culture that arouses curiosity and gives something to talk about in public space, encouraging social interaction, (and I am not only talking about physical interaction, but also visual), as being seen working in the streets can produce a sense of admiration that can impact on our subconscious, hence inspiring many and future generations the desire and appreciation to work. Additionally, it would generate a change to the urban landscape, the experience, and stimuli to which people are exposed when walking in the streets, making them witnesses of an innovative public diversity.

The fact is, when someone has proper inspirations, they dream and desire to work. I remember when at some point as an entrepreneur it was very difficult to sustain my business, because the first sales and profits were always destined to cover the rent of the office and the "public" services of electricity, water, and the Internet. This situation is probably familiar to many entrepreneurs, who have suffered the impact of the pandemic on their cash flow. This has become a deadly condition that large businesses cannot sustain. Nevertheless, the opportunity to have a free office, just around the corner, and in an alternate environment to our homes, can contribute to what we would call a return to normality, to the so-called “new normality”. What if you worked from Central Park tomorrow, right behind the Metropolitan Museum of New York? And best of all, for free! Why not?

To conclude, I would like to quote Thad Pawlowski, a professor I always admired during my studies at the GSAPP School of Design at Columbia University, about the times of COVID-19: "There has never been a better time to redesign the world.”

German Bahamon.

Author, German Bahamon

May 27th, 2020