Pandemic, Shifts in Consumer Behavior Trigger Fundamental Changes in Design of Public Spaces

The downtown Detroit location for Madcap Coffee Co. features a pick-up window. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Berryman/KDG)

By Bob Kraemer, Kraemer Design Group

The way that we work, eat, shop, gather and interact in community spaces will never look the same. While we may someday return to dine-in experiences and large-scale events, it’s clear the novel coronavirus has prompted profound and pervasive societal changes that are here to stay. It should come as no surprise to anyone who understands the deep connection between designed spaces and the people who occupy them that public spaces will need to evolve.

We have already seen an evolution of spaces in order to stay relevant, stay profitable and in some cases, stay open. What does all of this mean for design and development?

Bob Kraemer, Kraemer Design Group

To understand what the brick-and-mortar landscape of tomorrow might look like, we have to think differently about the design of public spaces and the evolving priorities and practices of consumers, diners and office users.

The waiting game

Thinking differently about the design and functionality of public spaces means ensuring spaces formerly seen as functional or utilitarian are updated to address health and safety concerns and are no longer viewed and designed as an afterthought — but as strategically designed spaces.

For example, diners waiting to be seated or people picking up food orders don’t want to be rubbing elbows with quick-moving delivery drivers to grab an order and go in a crowded space. Likewise, those same drivers want their transactions with restaurants to be clear and efficient.

The waiting experience of the future needs to be comfortable, entertaining and engaging for those spending time there, accounting for the ways consumer perceptions and expectations have changed. This may mean incorporating even more space between seating areas, but also adding more luxurious, high-quality touches that help even the shortest visits to a business convey a sense of style and tell a story about the business itself.

Logistics versus experience

The nature of the facilities will change and so will the experiences of those who use them. Great design isn’t just functional, it’s memorable and evocative, and deeply satisfying in ways that make visitors comfortable and occupants feel at home. There is always a balance between logistics and experience — the way a space works and the way it feels — and that balance has already begun to shift in ways that feel less like a temporary accommodation and more like a permanent change. We envision this as an opportunity to introduce compelling experiential elements.

Consider our restaurant example. We’ve seen operational and spatial shifts to make way for takeout infrastructure inside of restaurants, especially full-service restaurants where those spaces have traditionally been limited, if they even existed at all. The experience of arriving, picking up food and leaving is being viewed as more important than in the past. This isn’t limited to dining establishments, either, but in offices and medical facilities and anywhere people may need to spend time.

Ironically, because people are sometimes spending less time in public spaces, the time they do spend takes on heightened importance. Commercial designers and developers need to recognize that the experience we’re selling is no longer rooted in a physical space. There will likely be less consideration given to factors like onsite seating, and more time spent on features that can be flexibly configured and reconfigured to meeting evolving needs — and the desire from consumers to have a completely different experience than a year ago.

Feature elements like art and signage will be utilized to define the experience from the moment people enter a space, and the need to assure visitors they are in a clean and safe environment will remain a priority.

One order to go

Restaurants may be among the hardest-hit spaces in this pandemic, with spaces to enjoy a meal having become a fixture of so many different parts of our day, from office spaces to hotel bars. While the physical act of tucking into a meal or savoring a cocktail may not be as popular as it once was, patronizing a business hasn’t gone out of style.

Truly, the consumer desire for restaurant food options hasn’t diminished. Even in a pandemic (and perhaps especially in a pandemic) people still want restaurant food to give them a break from the monotony and obligation of home cooking. There’s a reason why food delivery apps and services have exploded in popularity in the last six to eight months.

We anticipate the future of restaurant and service retail will almost certainly include design elements like walk-up windows and expanded drive-up or drive-thru options. Where these don’t exist already, existing businesses — including retailers of all sizes — may reconfigure their entire space to offer less onsite service and more pick-up friendly infrastructure.

Blurred lines

From offices to retail spaces, many public spaces will be taking a hard look at design elements and configuration of their facilities. The more noteworthy trend will be a reallocation of spaces: changes in how once-traditional destinations are used. Specifically, we will start seeing some of the lines being blurred. No longer will we have places to work, eat or sleep — they will merge, overlap and flow in new and interesting ways.

We can expect to see more cross-over spaces, with restaurants potentially converting to include coworking spaces, or hotels offering special “packages” and space allowing people to work from there.

The bottom line: When it comes to addressing new logistical and experiential demands in a rapidly changing world, commercial space tends to be ahead of the curve. We are already seeing changes begin, and bigger shifts are in store. And these aren’t just short-term moves based on pandemic necessity, but fundamental changes that will define the landscape of public spaces for a long time to come.

Bob Kraemer is co-founder and principal at Detroit-based Kraemer Design Group, an architecture, interior design and creative firm. This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Heartland Real Estate Business magazine.

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