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The Social Highway

Fraser Morrison & Elliott Wang

With the closing of free public parks and other amenities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting crisis has raised not only economic and humanitarian issues but also spatial constraints. The proposal for a Social Highway seeks to reclaim the built environment for all, through the design of simple, raised, timber structures that reclaim empty streets from the domain of the car. Taking the streets of London as a testbed, it is clear that current pavements, play spaces, and other amenities simply aren’t wide enough to allow for proper social distancing. The Social Highway seeks to change this through adaptable modules that can be built easily, require little maintenance, and can be retrofitted by individual neighbourhoods to suit their needs.

Now devoid of traffic, the Social Highway (Image 1) proposes an alternative to the car-centric promises of modernism and projects a future that is walking- and cycle-centric. Each square on the grid represents a surface of two meters, squared, creating the required safe distance for ease and reassurance to those using the highway. A series of larger structures provide a variety of spaces to socialize, exercise, and relax. To the north, tall vertical structures light the route of the highway and shelter communal tables for socialising while maintaining the required distance. A large cylindrical structure forms a new outdoor theatre that doubles as a sheltered viewing platform for the residents.

In the centre of the highway (Image 2), new benches look out over a local urban farm and offer a new perspective on familiar environments. Whether it be eating lunch, exercising, or enjoying the view, the structure allows for each person to experience it in their own way. The sectional modules can adapt to winding streets and share the road with vehicles.

Temporary ideas hubs involve communities from the beginning of the social highway creative process through making and teaching (Image 3). Instead of using the top-down design methods currently practised, this grassroots approach provides skills training to those in need of work in the local area, in turn bringing the community closer together as new forms of dialogue and interaction evolve as the structure develops.

Working at a city, street, and human scale, the Social Highway proposes a new way to pass by neighbours and reunite with friends. With the British government granting an additional two billion pounds of funding to adapt the streets for the age of pandemics, governments worldwide have begun to follow suit. In order to make meaningful change for all of society, we need to create safe spaces to socialise, keep healthy, and happily coexist from two metres apart. Through the implementation of a new low-tech and adaptive timber architecture. the Social Highway could be part of this change not only by providing skills and work but by designing a pathway to a healthier, happier future.