COVID-19: HOW COULD IT CHANGE CIVIL ENGINEERING?


It is hard to ignore the realities of the present pandemic. COVID-19 has taken the world by storm even in the small ways we move within our communities. Walking on a sidewalk can turn into walking on the road because of opposing pedestrian traffic. Going to the grocery store can turn into a 30-minute wait in line outside and then one-way aisles once admitted. And parks – who hasn’t rediscovered a local park as we all look for safe ways to get out of the house? One could consider the present social norms and wonder how future civil engineering and urban planning might be impacted as we continue to adjust to these changes.


Present Changes Due to COVID-19 Depending on where you live, there are different social distancing guidelines. For example, in Portland – up until Phase I reopening – social distancing standards were quite strict. People had to be a minimum of 6 feet apart, gatherings of 10 or more people were prohibited, shopping spots and all dine-in restaurants and bars were closed. Even popular hiking spots in and around Portland were closed.


Similar standards nationwide have changed the way we go about daily life. To accommodate the new social distancing standards, many streets in more populated cities like Portland are closing to allow the right of ways, or even whole streets, to become restaurant seating. More people are taking advantage of parks as they seek to enjoy being outside and socializing while still maintaining distance from peers. Most large-scale retail and grocery stores reduced their allowed occupancy by at least 50% when reopening, with some reducing customer capacity to as low as 20%.


Possible Future Impacts on Civil Engineering and Urban Planning Civil engineers and planners are still working through what changes are warranted and, indeed, possible in post-pandemic communities. The following solutions seem likely as even just a beginning toward accommodating social distancing guidelines long-term.

  • Sidewalks and their uses: There could potentially be more pedestrian and bicycle space than roadways in future street designs. This means right of ways could be designed larger and have more diverse use allowances with easier permitting processes. For cities that designate sidewalk areas as café areas as well, thus sharing the space and reducing pedestrian right of way widths, these uses could be designed separately to ensure distancing guidelines are maintained. Widening sidewalks could also reduce vehicular traffic. Another possibility to provide ample pedestrian space for distancing is to make pedestrian only streets like the temporary ones now being implemented in some cities.

  • Retail space occupancy: Restaurants, bars, and retail stores might continue to reduce their occupancy allowance by 50%. New developments might become larger to accommodate the pre-Covid occupancy numbers but with greater space for distancing. However, this is a costly solution. More likely is stores designing for smaller capacities by implementing one-way traffic on shopping aisles and for restrooms, entrances, and parking lots.

  • Parks and recreation centers: Parks and recreational sites may experience expansion and improvements due to their increased use. Designs could see a reduction in sidewalks, other than ADA paths/spaces, to encourage dispersion for people using the grounds. Facilities such as bathrooms and water fountains can be designed to be more touch free and sanitary. The increased focus on local park usage will hopefully trigger additional funding for these improvements and expansions, particularly in underserved and vulnerable communities.

Long after current social distancing guidelines are officially relaxed, many people may still choose to stay a little farther apart from their peers than before the pandemic. The question is how civil engineers and planners will be called on to respond to design and code changes in post-pandemic communities. Increasing pedestrian zones, adjusting retail space design, and expanding parks and recreation offerings are just a few of many possible solutions.



About Amber Rood

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Amber Rood is a Project Analyst for Foresite Group’s Land Development team in Portland, Oregon. Amber graduated from the University of Florida with a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering. She has a background in dredging operations, permeability and seepage in soils, and aerospace materials. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, camping, making new vegan dishes, and spending time with her dog.